Perhaps more than any other French director, Jean-Jacques Annaud has always felt at home making films in Hollywood, with the American movie capital’s flair for the epic and the spectacular.
Now, the 78-year-old Oscar-winner behind The Name of the Rose, Seven Years in Tibet and Enemy at the Gates 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 next month’s The American French Film Festival (TAFFF) announced Tuesday that his movie will be their opening night Los Angeles gala premiere.
“I’m close to Notre-Dame now and far away from Los Angeles. But part of my heart remains in Los Angeles,” said Annaud.
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 a 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 this year, 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.”
Next month’s festival appearance continues Annaud’s love affair with Hollywood, which he said often diverges from French film traditions in scale and budget.
“In America, I realized that the investment is to try to make the best thing you can and the most spectacular, the more appealing, the more attractive,” he said.
Unlike the French New Wave movement, which emerged in the 1950s from theater and novels and emphasized dialogue, American filmmaking focuses more on movement and the visual, said Annaud.
“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.
“If we have the privilege to be seen on the big screen, it is to fill up this big screen and not to have only people who talk like on the television shows,” he added.
“I would not have done the movies that I’ve done without the full support and friendship of American production companies and major studios.”
Among other films playing this year at TAFFF, which runs October 10-16, will be Final Cut (Coupez!) from Michel Hazanavicius, the Oscar-winning director of The Artist.
Also on show will be two films recently named on a shortlist of French movies for submission to next year’s Oscars – The Worst Ones (Les Pires) and Full Time (A Plein Temps).
Amazon Prime’s Hawa from Maimouna Doucoure, whose previous movie Cuties was released by Netflix and stirred international controversy over allegations of hypersexualizing young girls, will also feature.
The festival closes with Dominik Moll’s The Night of the 12th (La Nuit du 12) and a theatrical screening of HBO French-American miniseries Irma Vep, created by Olivier Assayas and based on his 1996 film of the same name.