A handsome if occasionally harebrained addition to the “great man” genre — with the added implication that such heroic feats might not have occurred were it not for an equally impressive lady working behind the scenes — “Eiffel” offers the half-invented story of Gustave Eiffel, the civil engineer who built the most recognizable monument in the world.
From the opening seconds, the 2.66:1 CinemaScope aspect ratio is a clue that this project was not designed to capture the vertical progress of the Eiffel Tower’s construction (if that were the case, an upright iPhone screen might be better suited). Rather, director Martin Bourboulon’s choice to shoot in the same ultra-wide format as “The Bridge on the River Kwai” signals that the movie will remain firmly rooted at ground level, focused on Eiffel the man (Romain Duris, a modern French star with the right mix of surliness and sensitivity for the role) and the more melodramatic details of his personal life.
Not a biopic so much as a sketchy piece of historical fiction, “Eiffel” identifies itself as “librement inspiré de faits reels,” which roughly translates to “a made-up crock of hooey.” Then again, bait-and-switching dry factual events for a sudsy affair between lovers from separate classes worked well enough for “Titanic” — although that movie had the sinking of an ocean liner up its sleeve. As with James Cameron’s film, audiences already know the ending (though it was intended to come down after the 1889 World’s Fair, the Eiffel Tower still stands), but Bourboulon’s in no position to deliver such a spectacular climax.
Since the filmmaker can’t afford to show much of late 19th-century Paris, much as we might like to see it, he focuses his dynamic energy (the characters and cameras are constantly moving) on delivering impressive views of the tower’s support struts coming together in an empty field, building to a stirring scene where the massive legs are first raised, then lowered to achieve the first level. Safer still, Bourboulon hatches a second-rate romance, rather than detailing the rich, real-life drama that swirled around Eiffel’s controversial endeavor. He’s set out to concoct a “Citizen Kane”-style Rosebud at the foundation of the 300-meter iron landmark. Since we’re dealing with how France’s most famous phallic symbol came to be erected, it stands to reason that the motive should be a woman.
To inspire such a feat, it can’t be just any old dame. By the late 1880s, when the tower was commissioned, Eiffel was a world-famous celebrity, having built bridges, railway stations and the skeleton that undergirds the Statue of Liberty. According to Jill Jonnes’ “Eiffel’s Tower” (a worthy read for those interested in the backstory), the young Eiffel struck out on several marriage prospects, eventually enlisting his mother’s help in finding a wife. “Really, what I need is a good housekeeper who won’t get on my nerves too much, who will be as faithful as possible, and who will give me fine children,” he wrote at the time.
That’s not at all how one might describe Adrienne Bourgès, the proto-feminist firecracker Bourboulon introduces as Eiffel’s love interest (embodied by relative newcomer Emma Mackey of Netflix series “Sex Education,” with her big eyes, strong jaw and architectural cheekbones). Much of the movie is told through flashback, memories that come flooding in while Eiffel sketches (or rather, endlessly traces designs of) his tower. And so, we meet Adrienne more than two decades after Eiffel did, upon the occasion of an awkward reunion — a dinner party where Eiffel, who’d earlier been seen dismissing a project of no utility to the public, suddenly announces his intention to build an iron tower twice the height of the recently completed Washington Monument.
According to Eiffel’s vision, the structure will be accessible to everybody — “no more class divisions,” he declares. This admirable goal might sound political, although in fact, the comment is meant as a rebuke to Adrienne, whose relatively well-to-do family wouldn’t let them marry all those years earlier. The fact that Eiffel doesn’t realize the true reason she jilted him lends the film its tragic dimension — that and the obstacle that she is now married to an old acquaintance of his, Antoine de Restac (Pierre Deladonchamps).
A tricky isosceles triangle forms as Eiffel and Adrienne rekindle their earlier passions — although Adrienne soon realizes there’s another party competing for her lover’s attention: the famous dame de fer (or “iron lady”), the tower itself. Seeing as how her husband holds the sort of influence with the press, financiers and committee that could cancel the project, Adrienne ultimately decides to abandon the affair so that Eiffel can complete his creation. While poetic, this development implies that the tower’s detractors may not have been sincere in their opposition, but merely manipulated by Restac’s petty personal agenda (to save his marriage). In fact, the monument’s opponents — which included such prominent figures as author Guy de Maupassant and painter Ernest Meissonier — were aesthetically scandalized, decrying the industrial-looking blemish on the Paris skyline as “useless and monstrous” and an “odious column of bolted metal.”
Alas, this revisionist idea deprives audiences of the fascinating historical conflict at the heart of the tower’s construction. A more honest telling ought to reflect a sad truth about human nature: More often than not, our species resists bold innovation, such that many beloved landmarks went up against harsh criticism when they were first announced. Consider the newly opened Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, which overcame a yearslong whisper campaign against its out-there design and off-the-charts cost, or such Paris fixtures as the Centre Pompidou (still considered an eyesore by some) and the unpopular new canopy of Les Halles, both of which — like the Eiffel Tower — clashed with the redesigned style of the city implemented just a few decades earlier by Baron Haussmann.
Perhaps Bourboulon found the initial resistance to the project and the dramatic change in public sentiment too bureaucratic for his purposes, focusing instead on the effective yet largely fictionalized romance. But what use is such invention? By the time the film’s corny penultimate shot arrives — a nod to the tower’s A-like form that makes it impossible to unsee the influence of Eiffel’s imaginary muse — it’s not at all clear how the job actually got done. At least one thing is certain: We should be grateful he didn’t fall for someone named Wanda.