Annaud returns to Hollywood with ‘Notre-Dame on Fire’ premiere
Published: Sep 22, 2022 07:12 PM
From left: <em>Wolf Totem</em> actor Dou Xiao, director Jean-Jacques Annaud and actor Feng Shaofeng attend a public auction sponsored by <em>Wolf Totem</em> in Shanghai on June 14. Photo: CFP

From left: Wolf Totem actor Dou Xiao, director Jean-Jacques Annaud and actor Feng Shaofeng attend a public auction sponsored by Wolf Totem in Shanghai on June 14. Photo: CFP

Jean-Jacques Annaud, the 78-year-old French director/Oscar-winner behind 1986 historical mystery film The Name of the Rose and 2015 Chinese drama film Wolf Totem, is returning to Tinseltown with his latest film, Notre-Dame on Fire (Notre-Dame Brule), a thriller about the real-life blaze at the beloved cathedral in Paris.

Annaud spoke to AFP via phone from France's capital as organizers of Octobers's The American French Film Festival (TAFFF) announced Tuesday that his movie will be their opening night Los Angeles gala premiere.

The story of the inferno that engulfed Paris' 12th-century Gothic landmark in 2019 was "a great drama that only a crazy Hollywood screenplay writer could imagine," he said.

Notre-Dame on Fire dramatizes the story of firefighters who risked their lives to extinguish flames before the entire cathedral was destroyed, and the mistakes and misfortunes that delayed the initial response.

The movie merges real archive footage of the fire with scenes shot by Annaud recreating the disaster.

It follows the security guard who accidentally checked the wrong cathedral attic for flames when the first alarm sounded, the fire engines stuck in Paris traffic and the supervisor who couldn't get his self-service "Velib" bicycle to work as he rushed to the scene.

"I had the feeling when I was writing the screenplay that I had a goldmine... it was so bizarre, so incredible," said Annaud.

Released in Europe earlier in 2022, the film shows how millions around the world watched in horror as the cathedral's famous spire collapsed and much of its ancient roof was destroyed.

Notre-Dame cathedral typically welcomed nearly 12 million global visitors a year and Americans have been prolific contributors to an international fundraising drive to rebuild the landmark.

"Everywhere around the world, this cathedral was far more than a symbol of Paris, or France, or even Catholicism or Christianity," said Annaud. 

"It was far above that. It was, in a way, sort of the fear, the metaphor of the collapse of Western culture... it was a symbol of permanence."

October's festival appearance continues Annaud's love affair with Hollywood, which he said often diverges from French film traditions in scale and budget.

Unlike the French New Wave movement, which emerged in the 1950s from theater and novels and emphasized dialogue, US filmmaking focuses more on movement and the visual, Annaud explained.

"The art of cinema is to tell exciting stories visually. If not, it's a televised radio show, it's another game, it's something else," he said.