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Martin Bourboulon’s Eiffel, a handsomely mounted drama starring Romain Duris as the legendary engineer behind France’s most iconic monument, tells the story you might expect – of Gustave Eiffel’s quest to build the tower that bears his name – while interweaving those events with the lesser-known story of Eiffel’s doomed romance with the captivating Adrienne Bourgès (Emma Mackey, in her French debut). As Eiffel combats negative public opinion and surmounts adverse building conditions by drawing on his genius for steelwork, the film gives equal weight to this love affair set over the course of 20 years, as Gustave and Adrienne, who is now married to the prominent journalist Antoine de Restac (Pierre Deladonchamps), rekindle their youthful flame. Can they make it work? Could Adrienne be the reason the tower is shaped like an A?
No. The film’s later events are fiction; in reality, after Bourgès’s parents called off the couple’s engagement, Eiffel never saw her again and married somebody else. Nor was he responsible for the tower’s aspect. This matters, because it means that Eiffel’s starry-eyed Nicholas Sparks romance, and the insinuation that we owe the tower to the sacrifice of a brilliant woman, is bunkum. Taking a few liberties with the truth is one thing, but outright fabrication sits uneasily in a film where characters utter lines such as “Where the cross-struts align, we have our Level One”, or “Please note the curved uprights.” Doubtless considering the long and prolific engineering career of Eiffel a mite too dry for a film, Eiffel’s makers over-correct the balance.
The most successful aspects of the film are its painstaking reconstruction (literally) of the tower itself, and its pleasingly unstarchy depiction of 19 th -century Paris. Duris seems uncomfortable as Gustave, whose character never fully transpires: he seems only upright, a touch romantic, a tad impetuous. That inability to pin him down makes the romantic subplot shaky, a matter not helped by Mackey’s faltering Adrienne. The actors have no chemistry, and the sexual affair (you’d never catch Isambard Kingdom Brunel performing cunnilingus in a British biopic) feels extraneous. Only Pierre Deladonchamps seems to be having any fun: a beautifully imagined scene in which the cuckolded Restac humiliates Eiffel into winding up his motorcar for him at great length shows the actor at once impish and purse-lipped with seething resentment.
Eiffel’s propagandistic silliness (“We started it together! We’ll finish it together!”) and textbook classicism (sepia tones; shameless exposition; rote Alexandre Desplat score), taken together with the confected Great Gatsby-lite romance, make Eiffel a dubious proposition, but an odd curio within the increasingly bedraggled biopic genre.
► Eiffel is in UK cinemas now.