I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed the new French series Le Bazar de la Charité, which they have retitled in English The Bonfire of Destiny, which is not a translation, but is an appropriately melodramatic thing to call it. The actual title refers to a real place and also an actual event. The place, which ought to be deduced even without a French education, was an annual charity sale where wealthy Parisians would go do their part by buying baubles at inflated prices, with the proceeds going to people in need (the poor, orphans, etc). While naturally tasteful, the event also had something of a carnival atmosphere, with strolling jugglers, magicians, puppeteers, and the like stationed at various points in the bazaar.
In 1897, this event was the site of a terrible fire, one of the worst in French history. A cinematograph caught fire (film was highly flammable in those days), and set the wooden structure alight. As was common at the time, there was no fireproofing, the exits were few in number and poorly marked, there was a stampede, and when all was said and done, there were 126 dead and over 200 badly injured — most of them women. The event was one of those tragedies so devastating that the name of the place became synonymous with the disaster that destroyed it. Much like Titanic. Like the Titanic disaster, a story this important deserves an epic treatment. In the hands of writers Catherine Ramberg and Karin Spreuzkouski, and director Alexandre Laurent, the material receives it.
First, I must say, as an enthusiast of disaster movies, and someone who’s researched and written about numerous conflagrations at this point (General Slocum, Barnum’s museums, Brooklyn Theatre, Iroquois Theatre, Triangle Shirtwaist, Hartford Circus, and Sept 11), this is the best, most realistically staged and shot fire scene I have ever seen in a movie, both for special effects and the emotional aspect, the tension, panic, and then the animal terror that envelopes the mob when exits are blocked. It is both harrowing and horrific, but it is also gripping, extraordinarily well acted, and does the seriousness of the topic justice by not glossing it over or prettifying it. It should make you queasy, and it does.
Naturally, you cannot spin an event that lasted less than an hour out into nine episodes, the length of this series. The balance of the show chronicles the impact of the fire on three young women and the people around them. And here, as much as the fire episode was realistic, the remaining 8/9 is not, but in the best way possible. I love it when form is tailored to the content. The structure of the narrative seems to me to be modeled on the French “well-made plays” of the 19th and early 20th centuries by writers like Eugène Scribe and Victorien Sardou, that were so influential on our own melodrama, full of heightened passions and twists and turns and meaningful coincidences (hence the “Destiny”). The long form also permits an epic scale closer to narrative lines spun by Romantic novelists like Hugo (or, closer to home, his heir, Dickens), giving time for characters to come in and out of the story in a dazzling tapestry. The Hugo aspect is also evoked by the script’s examination of class difference (which also resonates with the Titanic disaster), as well as virtue being called into question, values being put to the test: courage, honesty, kindness, generosity. To my mind, the execution here was impeccable. I haven’t read what other critics have said on the topic, but I would wager good money that many of them, who don’t know what the authors are attempting, will deride it for its operatic ambitions. For me, it is precisely what I want and never get, because most writers lack the imagination to go there. Some may complain, “This is fiction. It didn’t happen”. The Romantic reply would be, “What happened is too big, too important for ‘facts‘. The only way to make us FEEL the momentousness of it is to make reality match that one moment when the entire firmament was warped.” Think of all those shitty American TV movies dramatizing real life tragedies. Many of them are reasonably factually correct. Do they do events justice? Rarely. At any rate, the Bazar de la Charité fire was a century and a quarter ago. It can hardly be called “too soon”, can it?
Just a taste of what it contains: gorgeous, rich hussy Audrey Fleurot uses the opportunity of the fire to pretend that she is dead so that she can escape her ruthless, violent husband, the story’s chief hissable villain, played by Gilbert Melki. Camille Lou plays an equally gorgeous but virginal ingenue (Fleurot’s niece) who sees her loathsome fiance (Théo Fernandez) push her friend out of the way so he can save his own neck to escape the fire. She then falls for the young anarchist (Victor Meutelet) who saves her life and then gets accused of starting the fire with a bomb by Melki’s character, who is secretly his father and is also a member of Parliament and running to be President of the Republic! But if she doesn’t marry her rich fiance who trampled her friend, her father (Antoine Duléry) will go bankrupt because he was fool enough to invest all of his money in cinema! (In this story, it was his cinematograph which set the fire in the first place. One of the pleasures of the first episode is some clips from a couple of very famous Lumière Brothers films, the “Train Pulling into the Station” and the “Man Being Squirted with a Hose.” The second one has a nice irony in light of the storyline). The third girl (Julie De Bona) is a ladies’ maid with a horribly burned and disfigured face, who gets kidnapped by a widowed dowager (Juliane Balasko) who forces her to impersonate her daughter who died in the fire so that her worthless, womanizing son-in-law (Sylvain Dieuaide) won’t inherit her fortune! There is also the crusading reporter (François-David Cardonnel) who is the lover of Fleurot’s character, and an intelligence agent with a heart of gold (Stéphane Guillon), and more. And best of all, several scenes set in a Moulin Rouge style bohemian cabaret!
So, yes, it’s all quite artificial, but it is also far too, in a word, well-made to hate on that account. It is EFFECTIVE. And also remarkably astute, not just on the upstairs/downstairs class stuff, but about gender relations and how they play out socially and politically. And about what we’re going through at this very moment: ruthless, criminal politicians who will assert their own “truths” and frame anyone they need to in order to acquire and keep power. (That part feels very “Hugo”).
Now some news that may or may not be good. I heard from that grapevine (i.e. my wife) that a second season has been ordered. I suspect that news is bad. The first season was perfection. There is nowhere now to go but downhill no matter how much I loved the characters and the people playing them. This is a story about the repercussions from a fire. The farther out from that you get, the more you contrive to recombine the characters in new situations, the more you’re gonna jump the shark, baby. That’s what happened to Downton Abbey and they didn’t even have a fire (although newspaper headlines about the Titanic and World War One served similar functions). To the makers of this show, and to aristocrats in general, I say: sometimes it’s better to quit while you’re ahead.