Scen.: Georges Franju, Frédéric de Towarnicki (commento). F.: Marcel Fradetal. M.: Suzanne Sandberg. Mus.: Jean Wiener. Int.: Muriel Chaney (voce narrante). Prod.: Anatole Dauman, Philippe Lifchitz, per Argos Films, Sammy Halfon, Como Films. 35mm. D.: 15’. Col.
The church filmed here in December 1956 is neither Notre-Dame as it was on the morning of 15 April 2019, nor as it was in 1963, when it was cleaned white for the first time under the ministry of André Malraux: the battered façade is a dark grey and the statues in the gardens have been spattered by birds. Franju shows an almost empty nave, populated only by a handful of faithful pre-Vatican II worshippers, before the days of mass tourism. As indicated in the title, this is a film about a cathedral, not a film about religion: it is a secular film, though not a blasphemous one as some critical exaggerations of the time seemed to suggest. Franju wants his audience to make up their own mind, even if, as he told François Truffaut, the result is sometimes amusing: “The other day, one of our neighbours stopped my wife in the street and said, ‘Ah, Madame Franju, allow me to shake your hand. I saw your husband’s film about Notre-Dame, how beautiful! And then all those empty chairs, ah! Madame, one can sense that Monsieur Franju is a devout Catholic, one understands that he is saying, ‘Look at those seats, where thousands of believers will come to pray!’. Well, what can I say? This shot was precisely meant to show that fewer people are going to church, that the cathedral is deserted. And this what they make of it!” (“Cahiers du cinéma”, n. 101, November 1959). Speaking to Freddy Buache, he added: “If the church had been packed, that would have been fine too. Obstacles are helpful. Even if what one had hoped for doesn’t happen, things always work out if you are able to see, if you know what your subject and object are” (“Positif”, n. 25-26, autumn 1957). What Franju sees is the survival of a medieval building that is somehow in tune with its times.