Producer: Vanessa Van Zuylen Director: Martin Bourboulon Screenplay: Caroline Bongrand, Thomas Bidegain, Martin Bourboulon, Natalie Carter and Martin Brossolet Cast: Romain Duris, Emma Mackey, Pierre Deladonchamps, Alexandre Steiger, Armande Boulanger, Bruno Raffaelli, Andranic Manet, Philippe Hérisson and Stéphane Boucher Distributor: Blue Fox Entertainment
This biographical drama about the engineer who designed one of Paris’ most celebrated landmarks concludes with a listing of the tower’s dimensions, which is most impressive. Would that what precedes it were equally so.
The basic subject of Martin Bourboulon’s period drama—the construction of the Eiffel Tower for the 1889 World’s Fair—is potentially fascinating, not so much in terms of the minutiae of design, engineering and construction, which no film could express comprehensively or, probably, intelligibly, to a mass audience. But here those elements are pretty much reduced to shots of Gustave Eiffel (Romain Duris) sketching on pads and rattling off occasional simplified solutions to technical problems. Instead the battery of screenwriters have contrived a highly inventive tale about how the grand edifice was erected not simply on masterful building technique but unquenchable romantic longing.
In this version Eiffel, portrayed by Duris as a professionally confident but socially awkward genius, had his one great love when, while overseeing the construction of a metal bridge in Bordeaux as his first major commission in 1860, he met the Adrienne Bourgès (Emma Mackey), the daughter of an important local official. She reciprocated his affection and they hoped to marry, but their relationship was broken off by her parents.
So much is true, but the script portrays Adrienne as a vivacious flirt and proto-feminist, which might appeal to fans of 1940s Hollywood cliché (high-spirited Katharine Hepburn type wakes up sleepy Jimmy Stewart one—our girl event throws herself into the river to get his attention), but is probably wide of the historical mark. It adds that at the time of the break-up she was pregnant, and so distraught to learn that her father (Bruno Raffaelli) had cruelly told Gustave that it was she who’d rejected him that she tried to escape the family estate to find him, only to be impaled on the gate surrounding the property and seriously injured, unbeknownst to the jilted lover.
In any event Eiffel became an important engineer in Paris, earning plaudits for his work on the Statue of Liberty among other projects. He also married and had children, including a charming daughter, Claire (Armande Boulanger). She became his helpmate after his wife died in 1877; a decade later, when the government was accepting applications for a national contribution to the Fair, he was still a widower obsessed with work, though he demurred at designing an impractical addition to the city’s landscape rather than something useful, like a subway.
There is no evidence Eiffel ever saw Adrienne again after 1860, but “Eiffel” suggests that he did, and that it was the rekindling of their romance that convinced him not only to build the tower, but in a shape that would forever be a salute to her name. Unfortunately, she’s married, the wife of Gustave’s young supporter Antoine de Restac (Pierre Deladonchamps) who of course suspects his lovely wife of infidelity, not without cause.
There’s an interesting sequence in which Eiffel proves the durability of the proposed tower to the committee that will decide which proposal to support by having a model struck by the equivalent of a lightning bolt and gale-force winds. A visit to the subterranean building site indicates how air pressure was used to prevent the Seine from inundating the dig. There are also a few allusions to opposition from critics of the project and threats of strikes by workers. They necessitate brief scenes of negotiations with financial backers and even the predictable one in which a frustrated Eiffel trashes the model of his tower.
But the focus is on the romance, which the scriptwriters, whatever their preferences, could not portray as ending happily. In the end Adrienne will decide that the realization of Gustave’s professional dream must take precedence over the consummation of their love. Claire will get her father’s approval for her marriage to sweet but colorless Adolphe (Andranic Manet), but Gustave will remain alone—except for the triumphant tower, of course.
“Eiffel” has a handsome look—the production design by Stéphane Taillasson and costumes by Thierry Delettre capture the period, and the visual effects showing the in-process raising of the tower, while not extensive, are fairly convincing. Matias Boucard’s cinematography presents it all in well-composed if unimaginative images, and Alexandre Desplat contributes his usual reliable score, though it’s not one of his more striking pieces of work; the editing by Virginie Bruant and Valérie Deseine is unhurried, though it has more energy in the 1860 sequences than those set a quarter-century later.
“Eiffel” resembles old-fashioned Hollywood biopics: it’s pretty, but plays as fast and loose with the facts as they did without being either historically persuasive or dramatically compelling.