During last summer’s devastating European heatwave, which saw the continent subjected to record-breaking temperatures, France came off particularly badly, with an unprecedented number of wildfires destroying some 62,000 hectares of land in l’Hexagone. As a measure of the disaster, one especially brutal firestorm saw 10,000 Gironde residents evacuated from their homes.
Quentin Reynaud’s eerily prescient film The Blaze (French: En plein feu) was made one year before flames ravaged the writer-director’s native region—the densely forested southwest, where his film is set—which was the worst affected by the fires.
While watching The Blaze—which received its world premiere at the 2022 edition of the London Film Festival—it was quite surreal to think that it was conceived and filmed before large swathes of the country started burning. Yet despite Reynaud’s clairvoyance, at no point does The Blaze explicitly attribute its subject matter to climate change, nor does it need to, because—as the director himself alluded in the post-premiere Q&A session—it’s sort of self-evident.
The Blaze is anchored by a terrific performance from Alex Lutz, who recently shone in Gaspar Noé’s Vortex. Here, as in Noé’s film, Lutz plays a man who endures a difficult relationship with both his son and his own father.
As the film begins, Lutz’s Simon is preparing to flee his home as the wildfires get ever closer. Simon’s elderly father Joseph (André Dussollier) is coming with him, and Simon has an additional worry in that he can’t get his teenage son on the phone. Simon appears to be estranged from his son and ex-wife, for reasons that are never spelled out—Reynaud wastes very little time on exposition in this lean, taut film—although the cause of the familial breakdown gradually becomes fairly clear.
Once Simon has bundled both his dad and some supplies into their car, father and son set about attempting to put some distance between themselves and the fires. The trouble is, many other people are also in the process of evacuating their homes, and it isn’t long before the pair hit gridlock.
Simon and Joseph’s enforced time together gives them the chance to reconnect on some level, with the two finding some commonality beyond trying to escape their current perilous state. But with temperatures increasing both inside and outside of the vehicle, Simon and Joseph must choose between remaining in their car (as per the authorities’ instructions) or exiting it in the hope that they might reach safety on foot.
Although the pair do wait it out for a good while, it appears that neither the traffic nor the heat is going to abate and, as smoke and flames begin to swirl around the car, their decision becomes much easier. Luckily, both men know the surrounding area very well (not that anyone should ever underestimate the disorienting effect of fire), although the rather frail Joseph is clearly not in the best condition to attempt this physically demanding mission.
Have they left it too late? The same question might also be asked of the human race, who, on the whole, have done little but watch as global temperatures have soared, year after year.
Given that it is basically a two-hander, The Blaze‘s success essentially hinges on the performances of its leads, and even the slightest casting error would have been enough to sink this tightly wound venture.
Thankfully, Lutz is note perfect as Simon, and it helps that he’s paired with the veteran Dussollier, a tremendous actor whose stellar CV includes films by Alain Resnais, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, and Éric Rohmer.
While it is by no means inapt to categorise The Blaze as a disaster movie, it is one that takes a decidedly scaled-down approach to its material, with much of the action unfolding in the baking-hot confines of Simon’s car. This may well be for budgetary reasons, but it is nevertheless quite invigorating to see a catastrophe film that favours story and characterisation over huge set pieces.
Although The Blaze is a film centering on wholesale destruction by fire, it largely eschews the tropes favoured by other films in the same genre. Refreshingly, this frequently claustrophobic eco-thriller is far removed from the likes of The Towering Inferno and Ladder 49, and there’s a wonderful economy to Quentin Reynaud’s crisp, urgent storytelling.
Find more reviews at the Environment Show Films section.