In the 1880s France was simmering with discontent regarding workers rights, along with endless losses from fighting in the French colonies. More importantly, the 1889 World’s Fair was just a few years away and the French government sought an iconic monument. Gustave Eiffel (Romain Duris) had recently completed The Statue of Liberty, one of the great American monuments, so who better to design the French monument than the fabled Eiffel? Eiffel was much more interested in building a Parisian subway system than a towering edifice, however, and when his engineering team present plans for a 200-meter tall steel tower, Eiffel rejects it as boring and uninspired.
A widow and single father, Gustave is loving with his daughter Claire (Armande Boulanger) and two young boys, but he’s a worker and businessman first. Until he has a chance encounter with his first great love, Adrienne Bourgès (Emma Mackey), a young woman he had almost married decades earlier. Complicating matters, she’s married to M. Bourgès (Bruno Raffaelli), one of the judges who will be evaluating designs for the French area of the World’s Fair.
Then again, perhaps Gustave never rekindled his romance with Adrienne and she wasn’t the reason for his suddenly becoming inspired to build his greatest edifice. There is no official biography upon which the film Eiffel is based. Instead, the production team is candid that they simply imagined Eiffel meeting up decades later with the great love of his life and how that could have been what caused Eiffel to build La Tour Eiffel after all.
Eiffel, then, is not a biopic, nor is it historically accurate. Instead, it’s a historical romance built around a simple narrative that conveniently eschews the complexities of real life. Never is Gustave’s deceased wife shown, in flashback or portrait, and Adrienne’s husband is bafflingly inconsistent in his reaction to his wife’s affair, sometimes angry and other times pleasant towards Gustave. Ultimately, he’s not important to the story, though, which seems a bit curious for an extramarital tale set in the late 1880s.
The scenes of the tower being constructed are excellent, giving a real feel for the noise, dirt, and chaos of the construction site, while simultaneously explaining why Parisians gradually grew to hate the tower during its construction. The cinematography is challenging at points, however, with some key scenes filmed in very low lighting. The screener I viewed was so dark and muddy during a few of these scenes that all I had to go on was the dialog. Hopefully when projected onto a big screen, they are clearer since they are rather pivotal to the story. Otherwise, the settings are lush, the furnishings realistically overstuffed and almost baroque, and the exteriors delightful, as if they were inspired by the great Renoir painting of the era.
There’s no way around it, though. At times Eiffel seems like a big-screen adaptation of a History Channel program on The Great Monuments or similar, where the viewer understands that it’s a “dramatization” for the purposes of telling a story rather than something intending to be historically accurate. The monumental undertaking of constructing the 300-meter tall steel Tower progresses with no real snags or problems and when at one point the workers go on strike over pay, it’s quickly resolved with a quick inspirational speech by Gustave.
Fortunately, historical verisimilitude doesn’t really matter. The film isn’t actually about the Eiffel Tower, it’s about Gustave Eiffel. Did the real Eiffel rekindle his romance with Adrienne? Did she inspire his work? Was there a happily ever after? Honestly, does it matter? Go into the theater expecting a pleasant if predictable romance set against late 1800’s French society and an audacious construction project and you’ll find Eiffel a satisfying film.