Notre-Dame de Paris: Eight Centuries of History

From the birth of the project to the finishing touches, the documentary Notre-Dame de Paris: The Secrets of the Builders looks back at the life of this architectural gem on Ile de la Cité in Paris, using animated images in a blend of historical facts and fictional anecdotes. We talked with director Emmanuel Blanchard to find out more.
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France-Amérique: You condensed 700 years of history into 90 minutes. What made you accept such a challenge?

Emmanuel Blanchard: The paradox of major monuments is that they are surrounded by a certain mythology, visited, and adored, but we know so little about their history. For example, who built Notre-Dame? This movie shows the anonymous artisans on the building site that began in the Middle Ages, at a time when it was almost impossible to anticipate and plan such a large project. I took the liberty of giving faces to a number of historical figures such as Maurice de Sully (the Bishop of Paris, he is behind the construction) and Pierre le Chantre (he was canon of the cathedral). I also created fictional characters whose lives intertwine with the most important steps in the cathedral’s construction. My objective was to take mainstream audiences through this epic saga.

The movie was almost finished when the fire happened. What did this tragedy change for you?

We had worked on the project for three years, and the animated sections were almost complete. Aside from the emotional shock and incomprehension, the fire changed the narration of the documentary. Notre-Dame actually speaks in the first person, I wanted it to talk and tell its story. Yet this story was now different. The cathedral that had triumphantly stood the test of time had now become a survivor. The start of the reconstruction project also gave the movie a different resonance. What started as an incredible historical revelation became an homage to the builders of the past, the present, and the future. The documentary developed to include another dimension in its role of passing the torch.

You very accurately demonstrate the techniques used at the time. What was your approach?

The wide shots and the construction scenes were animated, which enabled us to show incredible perspectives of the cathedral. Whenever we had a close-up shot of technical work, we used footage of artisans who cut stone, forge, or create wooden frames according to methods from the Middle Ages. We filmed at Guédelon Castle in Burgundy, where a team of experimental archaeology volunteers are rebuilding a castle using period methods and tools. Whereas we would now use a saw to cut a block of stone, they use chisels. This additional information adds to the movie’s documentary aspect.

French actress Sophie Marceau narrates the original version. Why did you choose her?

She was an obvious choice. So many questions came up while writing the script. What is Notre-Dame’s voice? Would it speak like an elderly woman? [The word cathédrale in French is a feminine noun.] I wanted to find a star – after all, Notre-Dame is the star of the cathedral world – but who also had a very direct manner. After all, it really calls out to people! Sophie Marceau inspires this closeness, and she was immediately excited by the project.

Which part of the cathedral’s history surprised you the most?

I was particularly interested in the building’s 19th-century reconstruction. I really fought to prolong the documentary to include this section through the French Revolution and the Commune of Paris. Everything is focused on a figure, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, whose name reappeared after the fire. He was not unlike Leonardo da Vinci, with an encyclopedic mind and an unrivaled understanding of Gothic architecture. He was so learned on the subject that, humbly, he decided to continue Maurice de Sully’s original project. We are so accustomed to seeing Notre-Dame that we forget that Viollet-le-Duc was the one who put in the striges and chimeras! The cathedral we know and love today is not the one built in the 12th century, but rather the renovated version from the 19th century. Not only does it reveal a piece of history, but it is itself the product of history.

Viewers will certainly see that the cathedral has changed its appearance several times!

All builders throughout time have wanted Notre-Dame to be as beautiful as possible and have continuously changed it! After completing the nave, they decided to replace the windows, and demolished and rebuilt the transept to include rose windows. The cathedral has been constantly improved. Viewers can watch it being built thanks to the animated images. There is a certain childish pleasure in watching forty years of construction finished in thirty seconds as if it were a model, and animation enabled us to portray enormous work sites. It should also be noted that the builders had anticipated the danger of a fire, which was one of the most common threat to this sort of building at the time. As a result, the ceiling vaults were designed to protect the structure from the flames. And it worked: They held strong and the rose windows were even saved.

=> The documentary 
Notre-Dame de Paris: The Secrets of the Builders will be broadcast on TV5 Monde USA on April 8 at 8:30 pm EST (5:30 pm PST).