'Through the Fire' ('Sauver ou perir'): Film Review

Mars Distribution
An engrossing if familiar triumph-over-adversity story.

Pierre Niney ('Yves Saint Laurent') plays a Parisian firefighter who survives a fatal accident in this second feature from writer-director Frederic Tellier ('SK1').

In Through the Fire (Sauver ou perir), the life of a valiant French pompier is upended by a powerful inferno that leaves him permanently disfigured and on the brink of death. It’s a gripping and, especially in the last act, rather moving true-to-life story that can also feel like a three-alarm fire of cliches, showing a brave and loving family man — really, just an all-around perfect guy — trying to overcome near-impossible odds.

Despite so much familiarity, this second feature from writer-director Frederic Tellier (SK1) benefits from a strong sense of detail in its portrayal of the firefighter’s combat, as well as an excellent lead turn by Yves Saint Laurent star Pierre Niney.

The latter, who appears on screen both buffed up and completely broken down, has proved to be one of France’s finest young actors ever since he joined the prestigious Comedie-Francaise theatre troupe back in 2008 (he left the institution five years later).  Here, he carries a movie that works best when it delves into the nitty-gritty, at times gory aspects of a dangerous profession, less so when it resorts to predictable storytelling or outright tearjerking in order to win the audience over.

Paris fireman Franck Pasquier (Niney) is a hardworking and heroic public servant. He saves lives on a daily basis — in France, firefighters are also certified EMTs — bravely leads his colleagues through risky situations and maintains an admirable level of discipline. He’s also an ideal husband to the lovely Cecile (Anais Demoustier), who lives with him in a barracks-like station house at the center of town, where Franck and his squad engage in arduous training sessions and military-style lineups.

The script (by Tellier and David Oelhoffen) chronicles Franck’s existence in a documentary-like manner, following him through the highs and lows of his job while giving us extended glimpses of his happy home life. In fact, things seem so perfect for Franck that it hardly comes as a surprise when, while fighting a factory fire in the north of Paris, he courageously saves some of his men but winds up getting devastatingly injured in the process.  

It’s at this point that Through the Fire gets more interesting, with Tellier delving into the long and painful recovery that Franck faces. Covered with third-degree burns on his arms, chest and especially his face, which will forever be altered by the accident, Franck undergoes two-dozen surgeries while spending years in various forms of hospitalization. During that time, his relationship with Cecile falls apart and his connection to his twin daughters remains nonexistent. Scarred both on the outside and inside, he tumbles into a major funk that goes from bad to worse to suicidal.

Again, familiar territory, but Niney is so good at conveying Franck’s mental and physical destruction, as well as his inability to cope with the extremely fragile new person he has become, that you almost forget how much Through the Fire tends to lack originality.

In its best moments, especially during the final reels, the film tenderly shows how Franck tries to piece his life back together, even if it will never be the life he once had. But there are other times where the lack of strong characters or plotting undercuts Tellier’s message, and you really wish he would have added more depth to the proceedings. (Demoustier’s Cecile is particularly short-changed here, giving very little for the talented actress to do beyond look overtly worried.)

In terms of craft, the director excels on the same level as his well-made 2014 debut thriller SK1, convincingly shooting in real decors and keeping the drama tense throughout. Photography by Renaud Chassaing (The Clearstream Affair) is slick yet naturalistic while production design by Gwendal Bescond makes good use of practical locations, including a working firehouse located in the heart of Paris.

The original French title, Sauver ou perir, is the actual motto for the Paris Fire Brigade (Brigade de sapeurs-pompiers) and translates to “Save or Perish.”

Production companies: A Single Man, Mars Films, France 3 Cinema, UMedia
Cast: Pierre Niney, Anais Demoustier, Chloe Stefani, Vincent Rottiers, Sami Bouajila
Director: Frederic Tellier
Screenwriters: Frederic Tellier, David Oelhoffen
Producer: Julien Madon
Director of photography: Renaud Chassaing
Production designer: Gwendal Bescond
Costume designer: Elisabeh Lehuget-Rousseau
Editor: Gwen Mallauran
Composers: Christophe La Pinta, Frederic Tellier
Casting director: Christopher Moulin
Sales: WTFilms

In French
116 minutes