Not to be too cynical about it, but might the recent horrific fire in Paris’ cathedral attract audiences to a film in which the gothic gem plays a major role? It’s likely a wiser marketing strategy than promoting the unrelenting silliness of Valerie Donzelli’s oh-so-kooky comedy “Notre Dame,” the writer-director-star’s return to contemporary Paris following her historical misfire “Marguerite and Julian.”
Despite wanting to be a cathartically humorous riposte to an anger-filled society, this story of a meek architect unexpectedly awarded the contract to redesign Notre-Dame’s esplanade (pre-conflagration) relies on an insufferable combination of flaky absurdism mixed with saccharine insouciance, all packaged like a chirpy sitcom in which dripping snot is played as a big laugh-getter. Timing however may well play to Donzelli’s advantage, at least until the reviews come out.
Cheeriness is the film’s leitmotif, pitched at a level generally reserved for children in the pre-verbal stage. News reports about depression and malaise fill the airwaves, random acts of aggression are witnessed on the streets, homeless East European women are camping on the sidewalks, but Donzelli subsumes them all with sheer inanity. Maud Crayon (Donzelli) is the kind of person who can’t commit to change: She’s too mousey to stand up to her dictatorial boss, Greg (Samir Guesmi, one-note), and too wishy-washy to refuse her bed to her ex, Martial (Thomas Scimeca). A cartoonish maquette for a playground she’s designed is treated with disdain by Greg, but magically one night it flies out her window like the Holy House of Loreto and miraculously lands among the models vying for the lucrative Notre-Dame esplanade contest (that is a literal description of what happens, not a catty one).
The mayor’s office loves her unplanned proposal and awards her the contract; as if that’s not overwhelming enough, her partner before Martial, a journalist named Bacchus Renard (Pierre Deladonchamps) appears on the scene to report on the project, and she faints dead away. Life has suddenly become overwhelming: Maud’s fallen back in love with Bacchus, who’s never gotten over his adoration for her, and all Paris eagerly awaits the unveiling of a blueprint for her esplanade design. Unfortunately for Maud, she allows her vision to be taken over by some hotshot architects who turn her Playmobil tubes into giant phalluses, scandalizing all of France.
The script’s ridiculousness snowballs as Donzelli grasps for ever-nuttier twists and turns, accumulating tiresome absurdities as if she’s unsuccessfully grappling with a major case of ADD. She seems to have also pushed that on her regular editor Pauline Gaillard, given the number of cuts per minute. And why suddenly toss in a superfluous narrator just beyond the 20-minute mark, while wasting the comic talents of Bouli Lanners as her colleague Didier?
It appears that Donzelli thought that unmodulated caricature could make some kind of light-hearted statement about releasing ourselves from our personal straitjackets, yet the twee nature of it all is enervating, not liberating. At least money was saved on the costumes, since everyone inexplicably wears more or less the same thing for every occasion. Yes, there are attractive shots of Notre-Dame, possibly the last to appear in film before the fire, but the creeping sadness that takes hold of viewers who inevitably think about the destruction goes counter to the movie’s tone and jumbles things even further.