Melodrama in Fin-de-Siècle France: Le Bazar de la Charité (The Bonfire of Destiny)

Venita Datta, Wellesley College 

When my friend Willa Silverman and I were graduate students, we wanted to write a novel about the fin de siècle once we had established our bona fides as scholars. The novel would begin with Léon Gambetta’s famous escape from Paris in a balloon during the 1870 siege of Paris, feature the Dreyfus Affair—itself the subject of works of fiction—along with duels, and, of course, the inimitable Sarah Bernhardt. Thirty plus years later, we still haven’t written that book, in large part, because I doubt my gifts as a fiction writer (I won’t speak for Willa). Some historians have, however, ventured into the realm of fiction with positive results, and this rich period has been explored as well by filmmakers, writers, and other creative artists. If many of the results are outstanding, others are mixed; witness Roman Polanski’s tepid take on Colonel Picquart and the Dreyfus Affair in the film JAccuse (An Officer and a Spy in English), reviewed here by David A. Bell last year. Equally disappointing but amusing is the TF1 French telefilm series Le Bazar de la Charité, directed by Alexandre Laurent, and currently streaming on Netflix under the title The Bonfire of Destiny. This eight-part series was a huge success in France, attracting an audience of 6 million viewers when shown there in fall 2019. I really wanted to like it but, in the end, found the show’s indifference to historical accuracy off-putting.

One of the most important faits divers of the fin de siècle, the story of the fire has attracted the attention of a number of historians, myself included.[1] On May 4, 1897, a fire broke out at the Bazar de la Charité, a yearly charity event hosted by prominent wealthy bourgeois and aristocratic Catholic women. Founded by entrepreneur Henry Blount in 1885 to raise money for Catholic organizations, it was presided over by the Baron de Mackau, a leading Catholic politician who had rallied to the republic. The attendees represented “the directory of the nobility” in the words of Le Matin.[2] With a view to cutting costs and little regard for safety, the organizers built a temporary wooden structure on an empty lot in the rue Jean-Goujon, near the Champs-Elysées. On the second day of the bazaar, they installed a projector that caught fire at around 4:15 PM. The result was a conflagration that killed 125 people, all but five of them women, out of roughly 1,200 participants.[3] Witnesses reported pushing and shoving as the panicked attendees attempted to flee the building’s various exits. Local residents, including a number of workers in the area, came to the rescue, even running into the burning structure to do so. The staff of the adjoining Hôtel du Palais pulled some 200 victims through a barred window overlooking the back end of the bazaar. The tragedy of the Bazar de la Charité fire captured the national imagination, not only because of the status of the victims, but also because it sparked a national press debate about heroism that was infused with notions of class and gender.

Catholics exalted female victims, whom they represented both as heroes and martyrs, while those on the left praised the women’s working-class saviors and cast aspersions on the gardénias, aristocratic men who had supposedly used their canes to beat down the women in their struggle to escape. Although the tragedy was supposed to unite the French public, it divided them instead, as different political groups availed themselves of the occasion to castigate their opponents. Père Ollivier, the Catholic priest who presided over the ceremony at Notre-Dame in honor of the victims, used the fire to criticize the republican regime, describing the tragedy as retribution for the French forsaking of Christian tradition in favor of the false promise of science and technology. On the other side, left-wing populists denounced the cowardice of the aristocratic men, declaring the new heroes of France to be working-class men. Both groups minimized the heroism of the women, in part, because the courage of women contradicted contemporary stereotypes of the weak, emotional female victim and the strong, rational male hero—it was, after all, the women who had kept their cool to rescue family and friends while their male companions supposedly lost their heads in attempting to flee the fire. The story of the gardénias was ultimately whitewashed by the society press, especially after several female witnesses recanted.[4] Nevertheless, the heroism of French aristocrats seemed tarnished for a time. It is perhaps no accident that Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac, whose eponymous aristocratic hero displayed great physical courage and opposed absolutist power, was a huge hit when it was first presented in December 1897, uniting viewers of different political persuasions.  

The filmmakers of The Bonfire of Destiny use the dramatic backdrop of the Bazar de la Charité fire to tell a story of three women: Alice de Jeansin (Camille Lou), whose father is responsible for the installation of the movie projector in the bazaar; her aunt Adrienne de Lenverpré (Audrey Fleurot), and Alice’s maid Rose Rivière (Julie de Bona). After the harrowing first episode, which depicts the fire, the rest of the series traces the aftermath of the tragedy in the lives of these three women. Alice, who is betrothed to Jean de la Ferté, wishes to break off the engagement after witnessing him push Rose to the ground in order to escape. Rose, who had earlier taken Thomas, the young son of Alice’s friend Odette, to safety, returns inside the bazaar to search for the boy’s mother and Alice. Badly burned, Rose is rescued and transported to the hospital. In an overblown and frankly ridiculous plotline, the film depicts Madame Huchon, Odette’s mother, finding her daughter’s charred remains, which are identifiable by her jewelry. After switching Odette and Rose’s jewelry, Madame Huchon takes Rose home in order to pass her off as her dead daughter, leaving Rose’s family and friends to believe she perished in the fire. Meanwhile, Adrienne de Lenverpré, in despair after her abusive husband sends their daughter to a boarding school, attends the bazaar briefly before leaving to join her lover, Hugues Chauvette. Upon witnessing the destruction of the Bazar de la Charité, she decides to fake her own death, find her daughter, and make a new life without her husband. These two plotlines, although over the top, seem to be inspired by Paul Morand’s short story “Le Bazar de la Charité” in which an unfaithful wife skips the charity bazaar but gives her lover, who perishes in the fire, a necklace, which is found in the ruins.[5] Without disclosing too many more details of the film’s plot, I will reveal that Adrienne’s jewelry plays an important role in this story.

The series’ showrunner obviously consulted historical documents and sought to faithfully recreate the décor of the time. The sets are beautiful. The site of the Bazar de la Charité on the rue Jean-Goujon is today occupied by Notre-Dame de Consolation, built to honor the victims’ memory, and thus could not be used. Instead, designers used exteriors on the rue Louis-Boilly near the Musée Marmottan for the Bazar de la Charité exterior and made use of hôtels particuliers in the provinces for residences of the aristocrats and upper bourgeois families.[6] The costumes too are gorgeous. The young actress who plays Adrienne’s daughter Céline looks like she stepped straight out of a Monet painting. Julien de la Ferté, Alice’s fiancé, resembles the young Marcel Proust portrait by Jacques-Emile Blanche. Indeed, the cinematography is stunning, although it presents a candy box prettiness of the belle-époque Paris of the wealthy, save for the harrowing images of the fire and the few scenes set in a Parisian cabaret and a working-class newsroom. In contrast with the luminosity of the upper-class decors, the lighting in these scenes is dark, only in part because they are supposed to take place at night or in the rain. 

The story, however, is a veritable soap opera and the script by Catherine Ramberg, Yves Ramonet, and Karin Spreuzkouski lacks subtlety. The upper-class men are all nearly worthless, evil or weak like the gardénia Julien, who pushed Rose to save himself, and Alice’s father Auguste, ready to force his daughter to marry well so as to save the family fortune. If both of those men redeem themselves in the end, there is no hope for the aristocrats in the story, Marc-Antoine de Lenverpré (Gilbert Melki) and Henri de la Trémoille (Sylvain Dieuaide), the husbands of Adrienne and Odette, respectively, who are best described as dissolute sadists and outright criminals. The lower-middle class or working-class heroes of the story, seemingly perfect, also lack nuance; Adrienne’s faithful lover Hugues is a valiant journalist who tries to expose the cowardice of the aristocratic men, and Victor Minville, who falls in love with Alice, is an anarchist militant falsely accused of setting the fire, when in fact he went inside the Bazar de la Charité to save the lives of the aristocratic women.

The acting on the whole is quite good, especially that of the child actors—Léo the newspaper boy, little Thomas, Odette’s son, and Camille, Adrienne’s daughter. These young actors accomplish as much with their facial expressions, which the camera captures lovingly, as with their words. Among the women actors, Audrey Fleurot and Josiane Balasko merit special attention. Fleurot plays the role of Adrienne with great aplomb, while Balasko completely disappears into the role of Odette’s mother Mme Huchon, transforming our first image of a cruel and unhinged woman into a nuanced portrait of a loving mother and grandmother, ready to protect her grandchild at all costs—this despite the ludicrous plotline of kidnapping and substituting Rose for the deceased Odette. The two villains, Messieurs de Lenverpré and Trémoille, perhaps due to the weakness of the script, look like mustache-twirling villains straight out of a nineteenth-century melodrama. Their acting is over the top, albeit entertaining. They are not well served by the dialogue, which is at times stilted. Some choice lines, which are inadvertently comical, include: “Stay in your bedroom so you don’t run into one of your two husbands,” and “I may be a slut but you’re a piece of garbage.”  

In the end, Le Bazar de la Charité is a mixed-bag. It gets some elements of the real story right: the rumors of the cowardice of the gardénias, the heroism of the aristocratic women and of the working-class men who went into the fire to save them, like Victor and the cook Vaudier, a real historical figure depicted in the first episode. It also treats the condition of women trapped in loveless marriages, parents forced to marry their daughters off for money and/or titles, the complete control of husbands over children, as well as the legal incapacity of married women. The presentation can, however, be heavy handed. For example, when Alice hears a woman in a cabaret talk about feminism, it sounds as if the latter were reading from a manifesto. Furthermore, most feminists of the time were bourgeois women like Marguerite Durand and Nelly Roussel, who used their status as wives and mothers to push for radical reforms.[7]

Historians will find many details with which to quibble, among them, the presence of married servants. Jean and Rose are a couple in the series whereas in actuality, married servant couples were rare. If a woman domestic married, she left a job whose hours were very long. Moreover, Jean and Rose would not have occupied such a nice apartment in their employer’s home nor have used the main stairway, but rather the servants’ stairs.[8] More problematic are the gross inaccuracies depicting relations between those of different classes and genders. First, a maid like Rose, even if she had grown up with her young mistress Alice, would never call her by her first name—always Mademoiselle Alice. A young woman of Alice’s class would never embrace her coachman Jean, as the character does at Rose’s funeral. Furthermore, a couple, even a married one, would not kiss in the street, as do Jean and Rose at the beginning of the first episode. In aristocratic families, husbands and wives used the formal vous not tu. The writers would have done well to read the popular fin-de-siècle etiquette manual written by the Baronne Staffe in which the author carefully outlines how men and women and servants and masters should interact with one another.[9] Other details are also inaccurate. A young bourgeoise like Alice would never venture into cabarets at night and alone—although I suppose this action advances the story. The mésalliances of Alice and Victor and of Adrienne and Hugues are also highly unlikely, even if important plot points. In short, the social relationships in the film seem more reflective of contemporary mores than those of the fin de siècle.    

More significantly, the writers’ decision to make an important plot change, namely, inventing the story that an anarchist militant was held responsible for the fire, is highly problematic. While anarchists were part of the fin-de-siècle landscape, especially when a series of bombings and attacks by lone figures took place between 1892 and 1894, they were no longer on the scene by 1897. The assassination of President Sadi Carnot by an Italian anarchist in June 1894 marked the end of this violence, which had already been disavowed by numerous anarchist leaders, including Peter Kropotkin and Jean Grave. Even before the president’s assassination, the government passed a series of repressive laws known as “les lois scélérates” that targeted anarchists, including the anarchist press, and outlawed publications advocating “propaganda by deed.” In July 1894, the government organized a trial (“le Procès des Trente”) that mingled numerous anarchists, including some intellectuals, with common criminals to set an example. Not only was the anarchist movement nearly decimated by these measures, anarchist leaders themselves moved toward revolutionary syndicalism thereafter.[10] While it is exciting to make one of its heroes an anarchist militant falsely accused of planting a bomb, the chronology is wrong. Moreover, the truth was more prosaic, as the series itself illustrates. The Bazar de la Charité tragedy was an accident, the result of a fire in the projector.

The incident was, however, responsible for ending the ralliement that allied prominent Catholics with the moderate republican regime. This alliance fell apart in the wake of the fire, and with the transformation of the Dreyfus court case into a national “affaire” in 1898, battle lines between left and right hardened. While this historical point has been understandably ignored by the series’ showrunners, they seem to have had the spy fever of the Dreyfus Affair in mind when they included spying in one of the series’ plot lines. Finally, Marc-Antoine de Lenverpré’s bid for the presidency of the Senate is historically inaccurate. By 1879, republicans had firmly taken hold of both houses of parliament and the Presidents of the Senate were henceforth bourgeois politicians.   

Despite the beautiful sets and cinematography, some good acting, and the short documentary at the end of the DVD, I would not recommend Le Bazar de la Charité for use in class because of the egregious liberties the writers take with history. But nothing prevents the viewer from indulging in the guilty pleasure of an overblown melodrama. 

Catherine Ramberg & Karin Spreuzkouski, Le Bazar de la Charité/ Bonfire of Destiny. TF1 (2019). U.S. streaming on Netflix


[1] See Venita Datta, “Gender, Class, and Heroism in the Bazar de la Charité Fire of 1897,” in Heroes and Legends of Fin-de-Siècle France: Gender, Politics, and National Identity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 33-75; Michel Winock, “Un avant-gôut d’apocalypse: l’incendie du Bazar de la Charité,” in Nationalisme, antisémitisme et fascisme en France (Paris: Seuil, 1990), 83-102;  Geoffrey Cubitt, “Martyrs of Charity, Heroes of Solidarity: Catholic and Republican Responses to the Fire at the Bazar de la Charité, Paris 1897,” French History, vol. 21, no. 3 (September 2007): 331-352, and Elizabeth Everton, “Expiatory Victims of Modern Crisis: Christian Feminism, the Bazar de la Charité Fire, and the Politics of Suffering,” French Historical Studies, vol. 42, no 3 (2019): 453-482.

[2] Le Matin, 5 May 1897.

[3] The number of overall attendees as well as well as the numbers of men are contested; organizers had much invested in inflating the numbers of attendees and deflating the numbers of men there.

[4] One wonders if they were pressured to do so.

[5] Paul Morand, “Le Bazar de la Charité,” in A la Fleur d’oranger (Vevey: Les Clés d’Or, 1946).

[6] “Où a été tournée la série?” Le Figaro, 18 November 2019 tvmag.lefigaro. fr.

[7] On Durand and Roussel, see respectively: Mary Louise Roberts, Disruptive Acts: The New Woman in Fin-de-Siècle France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 73-106 and Elinor Accampo, Blessed Motherhood: Nelly Roussel and the Politics of Female Pain in Third Republic France (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).

[8] Furthermore, the actions of the maid in Mme Huchon’s household who engages in a sexual adventure with M de Trémoille do not ring true. In the film, she, as much as Trémoille, initiates sexual contact, whereas in actuality, women servants were victims of their male masters rather than willing partners. As Anne-Martin Fugier has written, French novels of the nineteenth century—and this series too it seems—often present two dichotomic visions of the female servant: either a devoted saint like Rose, who goes into the fire to save her mistress, or a corrupt seductress, like Mme Huchon’s maid: Anne Martin-Fugier, “La Bonne,” in Jean-Paul Aron, ed. Misérable et glorieuse, la femme du XIXème siècle (Brussels: Editions Complexe, 1980), 27-39.

[9] Baronne Staffe, Usages du Monde: Règles du savoir-vivre dans la société moderne, (Paris: 1891; Editions Tallandier, 2007).

[10] Jean Maitron, Le Movement anarchiste en France: Des origines à 1914 Tome 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1992/1975), 251-261.