A little rigid and flat in its execution, Notre-Dame is an earnest attempt at blending fact and fiction, but whether or not it really succeeds is up for debate.
This review of Notre-Dame is spoiler-free.
Directed by Herve Hadmar and based on the book La Nuit De Notre-Dame, written by the Paris Fire Department and Romain Gubert, Netflix’s new limited series Notre-Dame is another example of trying to turn a real-life disaster – in this case, the iconic Parisian cathedral Notre-Dame catching fire in April 2019 – into prestige television. It’s an admirable attempt, capturing the importance of salvaging not just a landmark but a slice of history, and buffeting it with the crosswinds of human emotion and experience.
Notre-Dame, see, isn’t just a building – it’s a totem, and has meant so much to so many over the years that to see it burning was to see all it represented tumbling to ash along with it. Putting it out before the damage became too severe was a great undertaking, a coordination of effort and expertise worthy of the structure’s storied history. Notre-Dame, the show, is good at putting that across.
In the lives licked by the flames, we see a range of experiences and influences and motivations – the sense of duty embodied by a fire chief, the personal challenge for a grieving lover, the ambition of a journalist tasked with documenting the affair, divine inspiration, the connection of family, and the joy of unexpected and unlikely friendships. The event wasn’t just a threat against a national landmark but, in its way, the first thread in a tapestry of human connection, woven skilfully across six episodes.
In that human connection, Notre-Dame finds a lot of emotion. The varied perspectives help to touch on multiple themes and driving purposes, and the overall effect, especially when the stories begin to intertwine, is enjoyable. The theme of preservation, obvious though it may be, lands relatively well. But the predictable genre beats and compressed structure mean that so many characters and perspectives feel as if they’re jostling for equal treatment, which leads to a lack of depth and a frustrating adherence to cliché.
Like the recent High Water, also on Netflix, Notre-Dame is a factual account with accurate depictions of the processes surrounding a famous real-life situation, but it takes a degree of artistic license with its characters and scenarios. It’s not always successful at mixing the two. It works as an endorsement of the Paris Fire Department more, I think, than a drama, where despite game performances it can sometimes feel hamstrung by its familiarity and predictability. (And no, I don’t mean in terms of whether the cathedral burns down, but in terms of the outcome of the more personal storylines.)
All this having been said, there’s something to be said for the sense of significance Notre-Dame is able to create; its earnest appreciation for those who helped to prevent the cathedral from burning down, not to mention its reverence for the cathedral itself and its understanding for what it means to Parisians and the world.
You can stream Notre-Dame exclusively on Netflix.