Because I don’t get paid for my movie reviews I usually do a quick check of crits to weed out absolute stinkers so I don’t end up wasting even a few hours sitting through them. This is what I found online about Eiffel: ‘This celebration of French genius is essentially an old-fashioned and unsurprising drama, rich in period detail, with the parallel stories of Eiffel’s twin passions deliciously entwined. It is, in other words, a perfectly warm and undemanding opening to the 32nd Alliance Francaise French Film Festival.’
Good, I thought. I like old-fashioned and unsurprising, especially when it comes to a biopic, which the reader will know is one of my favourite genres.
However, it wasn’t exactly a stinker but it was a bit of a disappointment – a soapy disappointment at that.
The ‘twin passions’ referred to are his work and a woman. She was a real person but her role in Eiffel’s life is exaggerated at best and fanciful speculation at worst.
The setting is Paris in the Belle Epoque – the late 19th century. Gustav Eiffel is a successful engineer – the ‘magician of iron’ who has built hundreds of stylish metal structures – railway bridges were a specialty – all over the world. At the start of the story we see him being awarded honorary citizenship of the United States for his role in the internal engineering of France’s recently delivered magnificent gift to America – The Statue of Liberty.
Now Paris needs something marvellous for its International Exposition of 1889. Towers are all the go internationally and politically and Eiffel approves a plan by two of his top designers for an iron tower to sit on the Champ de Mars. It’s to be 300 metres tall, which will beat the Washington Monument’s measly 169 metres. With his reputation it’s almost a foregone conclusion that Eiffel’s entry will win the commission, and it does.
So far so interesting and thrilling. Then a face from his past appears at the afterparty – it’s Adrienne Bourges, his sweetheart from the past, now married to another. There are long close-up shots of both their faces as each recognizes an old flame.
This is where the film goes off the rails. Most of it from here on is taken up with flashbacks to their supposed torrid youthful love affair and its illicit revival in the present.
It’s true that Eiffel made a proposal of marriage to Adrienne when she was just 16 but was rebuffed by her father, who was Eiffel’s employer when he was building his first major work – a bridge over the Garonne at Bordeaux.
A book – The Real Life of Gustave Eiffel – was published earlier this year by French writer Christine Kerdellant which proposes that Eiffel – by then a widower with three children – and Adrienne got back together later in life, but this is accepted to be just speculation. In any case, the film chooses a different ending, based on the role supposedly played by Adrienne’s influential husband, a man by the name of Antoine Restac to whom I can find no reference even on French websites.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the ‘what if’ approach, but the trouble here is it demeans the important and serious parts of the story. One thread, for instance, is that Eiffel had a rare and admirable commitment to worker safety, and as it happens there wasn’t a single casualty during the building of his tower. But the film would have us believe that young Adrienne fell in love with him because she witnessed him diving into the Garonne to save a man who’d fallen from the bridge, and that later on she tests his love for her by throwing herself into the Seine. I mean, vraiment!?
There is just too much of this melodrama. I searched in vain for any reference to Eiffel’s having personally saved one of his workers from drowning. Surely such an event would have gone down in history? There is also too much sex, which adds to the soapiness. And while I’m on the subject, is it mandatory these days for onscreen lovers to come together, even for the first time, with a greedy mutual face-sucking and a mutual tearing-off of clothes as they first crash up against a wall and then hurtle across the room in their haste to get to the bed? I mean, whatever happened to foreplay? A soupcon of romantic delicatesse wouldn’t have gone astray.
Adrienne is a decidedly millennial heroine in more ways than her lack of maidenliness. She’s got the big plumped up lips and the currently fashionable two strands of hair hanging limply down either side of her face with the rest of it pulled back. It’s a pity, because the other characters and scenes are portrayed with great attention to period authenticity.
There is also too much hand-held camerawork. I think the point of this is to convey the energy and industriousness of both Eiffel himself and the work site. Like David Stratton I’ve always found it hard to watch. Mercifully they abandon it for the best scene – a heart-stopping moment when a worker high up on a horizontal strut is held by his legs so he can reach over and stick a bolt through two beams being manoeuvred into place.
Eiffel didn’t design the aesthetic aspects of the tower that make it the elegant edifice we know today – the splayed feet and the arches of iron lacework connecting the pillars. His genius was as an engineer. So when we see him hard at work at his desk he should be deep in sums and calculations, but instead he’s shown as forever doodling the shape of the tower. The reason comes clear – sort of – at the end, but it’s almost comically Freudian.
A better film could have been made with more attention to the artistic controversies surrounding the Eiffel Tower both during and after its construction, and less to the silly love story. It was vilified by prominent writers and thinkers of the time and was supposed to be taken down after twenty years. It wasn’t, of course. Why not? That’s the story I’d like to see.