The beautiful city of Paris in 2019 is not what it used to be. News headlines about unemployment, hurricanes, drought, pollution and depression engulf the city better known for its love of art and romance. So, what better way to unite a nation than to introduce a competition to design the new esplanade on the steps of the famous cathedral, Notre Dame?
Our protagonist, Maud Crayon (writer/director/actor Valérie Donzelli, 'Declaration of War'), is struggling in both work and life. She's a failing architect at a firm who refuse to recognise her contributions, as she simultaneously tries to raise her two children, unhelpfully burdened by her deadbeat ex-husband (Thomas Scimeca, 'La Belle Époque') who still crashes on the couch. However, her luck begins to turn when a miracle results in her winning the aforementioned competition, putting her back in touch with her ex-boyfriend (Pierre Deladonchamps, 'Stranger By The Lake') and back in touch with life.
'Notre Dame' is a quirky, offbeat and often obscure look at how people face their failures. How does someone rebuild their life and move forward when confronted with so many setbacks and unexpected hurdles? Donzellli aims to create a comical and playful tone in an attempt to answer these questions, and whilst frequently hilarious and whimsy, too often the substance is sacrificed for crowd-pleasing moments.
I would be lying if I said I didn't love all the unexpected moments in the film. Firstly, audiences are introduced to a craze of Parisians feeling the need to slap one another in the face, and it's hilarious. It's never really explored why this is the case, but it plays well for laughs, so audiences can forgive the oversight. Likewise, with the manner in which Maud wins the competition, there is no explanation on the miracle occurrence - rather, audiences are taken on a two-minute journey of Maud's playground model, taken in a gust of wind and flying through the streets of Paris. There's a silent movie sequence, a musical number, it's hot at Christmas and freezing in April, and pregnant bellies appear from thin air, each raising more questions than they answer.
But the point of 'Notre Dame' is not to ground audiences in reality or feed you all the answers. It's the exploration of success and failure, and how tackling said failures pave the way for something new. The core of which makes sense given Donzelli's previous film, 'Marguerite & Julien', which was booed on its 2015 Cannes debut. She has experienced all these challenges before and bares all on screen for us to understand, and more importantly, to learn from. The rebuilding of the esplanade is a direct parallel to Maud rebuilding her life; there are ups and downs, twists and turns, but ultimately it results in discovering what it takes to pick yourself up and keep moving forward. The ill-fated timing of this feature is not lost on its creative team either, showcasing an admiration for the cathedral that was fire-damaged mere weeks after filming finished.
The point of 'Notre Dame' is not to ground audiences in reality or feed you all the answers. It's the exploration of success and failure, and how tackling said failures pave the way for something new.
The debates around modern art that never go away are reflected well in how this film is projected. The abstract sequences are well complemented by the classic French filmmaking style, resulting in an entertaining 90 minutes. Trying to blend flair and colour to an otherwise traditional landscape is always going to cause an argument. In this particular case, the structure Maud wants to implement is quite obviously in the shape of a phallus. It's very funny, especially when patrons are taken on a 3D virtual tour of the model structure.
'Notre Dame' is slightly disjointed, and often feels like there were scenes filmed after the fact and stitched together last minute to tell a story - and it doesn't always work. Some of the fantastical scenes were added on set during production, and it damages the natural flow. Yes, the "extra" moments can be playful and enjoyable, but too often I found them to be distracting and taking focus away from the crux of the film. It's all very fast-paced, which works well in conjunction with the madness of the situation, but sometimes it needed to settle and let something brew, especially when it came to the relationship aspects of the characters. There was no time to breathe and process new developments, with the chaotic whirlwind of the film dominating proceedings.
That being said, it weirdly worked well for me. The comical, almost "cartoonish" nature of the film was refreshing and bold. Everyone is well cast, and it's great to see a middle-aged working mum at the centre of a story, and it not be solely about her struggles as a woman. The madness of it all is well illustrated in its whimsical setting; in fact, it could have done with even more absurdity. Sometimes you feel like it's holding back something even more bizarre, opting instead to showcase a more crowd-friendly moment. Perhaps this is a careful consideration, because had it embraced its wackiness tenfold, even more character and plot advancement may have been lost.
The style overshadows the substance, which is a shame considering the nature of the film's themes. 'Notre Dame' could have done with a more personal touch from Donzelli, and a more focussed approach to its characters. But overall, this is a lighthearted and often very funny insight into overcoming failure, something that everyone can appreciate to some degree.