Gustave Eiffel, who gave France its famous tower, has long been portrayed as a man of nuts and bolts, a brilliant structural engineer and the architect of iron.
A new film that opened in France on Wednesday paints a rather different, softer picture of Eiffel as a hopeless romantic whose eponymous monument was as much a landmark to love as a triumph of engineering.
eiffel, starring Romain Duris, is a period drama that suggests the tower’s A form was a constructed tribute to Eiffel’s first great loveAdrienne Bourgès, played by Emma Mackey of the Netflix series Sex Education.
The film, directed by Martin Bourboulon, claims to be “freely inspired” by the historical facts and accurately shows how Eiffel was an unpopular figure in the late 19th century Paris when his plans for the 10,100-tonne iron tower, intended to be a symbol of French industrial savoir-faire for the 1889 Universal Exhibition, were unveiled.
The engineer had been reluctant to take on the project; he and architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc – of Notre Dame Cathedral spire fame – had just finished building an iron and steel skeleton for the Statue of Liberty in New York and Eiffel was more interested in working on the Paris Métro system.
Historians have never established exactly what changed his mind. The film suggests he did so after bumping into Bourgès, who he had wanted to marry years earlier, rekindling their relationship despite the fact both were married and she to a politician who it suggests holds sway over Eiffel’s tower plans.
Eiffel received mostly positive reviews when it was first premiered in Australia earlier this year. One critic suggested the obsession driving the construction of “Paris’s grand folly” had rubbed off on the director, Martin Bourboulon, who signed off on the film only after four years, describing it as “a well-modulated melodrama … perfectly warm and undemanding”.
Another critic said Bourboulon had brought the story of the tower to life “while embellishing and entangling it with a love story which is, not to put too fine a point on it, a complete load of bollards from beginning to end”.
Eiffel dramatically portrays the anger the building of the tower provoked. In February 1887, when the foundations for the 312-metre structure which would rise from the banks of the Seine had only just been excavated, an angry collective including writers Guy de Maupassant and Alexandre Dumas the younger wrote: “We writers, painters, sculptors , architects, passionate fans of the beauty, until now intact, of Parishereby protest with all our force and our indignation, in the name of French taste … against the construction in the very heart of our capital of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower.”
It was intended to be dismantled after 20 years, but stood for 40 years as the world’s tallest building until the Chrysler Building in New York was finished in 1930, and in recent times attracted up to 7 million visitors a year pre-Covid.
The film, the biggest French production of 2020, has reportedly gone through a number of iterations from its first pitch meeting in 1997. French director Luc Besson is said to have originally wanted to make it with Gérard Depardieu and Isabelle Adjani in 2000. Its French producers are hoping the film will be a “French Titanic” mirroring the success of the 1997 historical blockbuster starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, which won 11 Oscars.