Review: ‘Eiffel,’ starring Romain Duris and Emma Mackey

June 9, 2022

by Carla Hay

Romain Duris (pictured at right) in “Eiffel” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Eiffel”

Directed by Martin Bourboulon

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Paris, from 1887 to 1889 (with some flashbacks to the 1860s), the dramatic film “Eiffel” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Architech/engineer Gustave Eiffel encounters conflicts in his personal and professional lives when he masterminds the construction of the Eiffel Tower. 

Culture Audience: “Eiffel” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching movies about the making of the Eiffel Tower, but the bland “Eiffel” fails to make an impact as a historical drama.

Emma Mackey and Romain Duris in “Eiffel” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Eiffel” tries to weave together dramatic conflicts that Eiffel Tower creator Gustave Eiffel had in his work and in his love life, but the results are clumsy, dull and superficial. This movie is just a back-and-forth slog that alternates between showing the construction of the Eiffel Tower and showing archiect/engineer Eiffel pining over an on-again/off-again lover who’s a heartbreaker. The cast members give adequate performances, but they are hemmed in by a movie that makes all of the characters as stereotypes instead of people with fully formed personalities.

Directed by Martin Bourboulon and written by Caroline Bongrand, “Eiffel” takes place primarily in Paris during 1887 and 1889 (the years the Eiffel Tower was under construction), although there are several flashbacks to the 1860s. The movie opens with title character Gustave Eiffel (played by Romain Duris) as a widower in his 50s and the father of five children. Inexplicably, the movie only gives adequate screen time to only one of his children: eldest child Claire Eiffel (played by Armande Boulanger), who is in her mid-20s when this story takes place. The rest of Gustave’s children are seen briefly, early in the movie, and are then never seen again.

In real life, Claire was a secretary and close advisor to Gustave, who relied on her for several matters pertaining to his career. But you wouldn’t know it from watching this movie. The only conversations that Claire has with Gustave are about their respective love lives. Near the beginning of the film, Claire announces that she’s engaged to a man named Adolphe Salles (played by Andranic Manet), and she asks Gustave for his blessing, which he gives. Later in the movie, Gustave confides in Claire that he has met a special someone whom he wants Claire to meet.

That “special someone” is Adrienne Bourgès (played by Emma Mackey), a socialite who is married to a mild-mannered journalist named Antoine de Restac (played by Pierre Deladonchamps), who loves and respects Adrienne. Adrienne and Antoine have no children together. The problem is that Adrienne is really in love with Gustave. Antoine has no idea that Adrienne has a past with Gustave.

As the movie shows in flashbacks, Adrienne and Gustave were lovers in the 1860s. They even talked about getting married. However, their love affair was interrupted because Adrienne was abruptly sent away by her wealthy parents (played by Bruno Raffaelli and Sophie Fougère), who disapproved of her marrying Gustave. Her parents thought Gustave’s lower social class made him “not good enough” to marry Adrienne. Adrienne’s father told Gustave that it was Adrienne’s choice to move away and end the romance without saying goodbye to Gustave.

There was another reason why Adrienne moved away (it’s the most obvious reason possible), but no one told Gustave at the time. A heartbroken Gustave moved on with his life, married a woman named Marguerite, and started a family with her. Gustave’s deceased wife Marguerite (who died in 1877, at the age of 30) is barely mentioned in this movie, which is another reason why “Eiffel” fails to have much depth. The movie never really addresses who’s taking care of Gustave’s underage kids (presumably it’s a nanny) who live in his household, because he is never seen spending any quality time with them or even talking about them at length.

By the time Gustave sees Adrienne again about 20 years after their breakup, he’s become a successful and world-renowned architect. His structures include the Statue of Liberty, which was unveiled in 1886, and became an instant world-famous landmark. And now, France wants Gustave to build an extraordinary masterpiece for France.

Gustave’s idea for this masterpiece is to build a 300-meter tower made of metal. He has a clear, uncompromising vision for what he wants, which later leads to conflicts with some of the government officials who have other suggestions on how to build the tower. Before the tower is built, Gustave insists that this tower should not be something that can only be enjoyed and accessed by elite members of society: “Everyone must be able to see it. No class divisions.”

In between Gustave’s battles over getting financing for the Eiffel Tower, overseeing the tower’s construction, and getting some unflattering media coverage for the costs involved, he goes to many parties attended by upper-class citizens of Paris. It’s at one of these soirees that he sees Adrienne for the first time in about 20 years. When they have some alone time together, she tries to hold his hand, but he pulls away. He also won’t look her directly in her eyes. Gustave tells Adrienne curtly: “I hoped I’d never see you again.”

However, it’s easy to predict that Gustave and Adrienne will see each other again. At an outdoor party, Gustave and Adrienne end up in a group playing musical chairs. During this game, Gustave and Adrienne get flirty with each other. It’s obvious to Gustave and Adrienne that they still have romantic feelings for each other.

And it isn’t long before Gustave and Adrienne resume their affair, but this time in a very secretive way. The movie spends a lot of time showing Gustave being emotionally tortured because he wants to go public with Adrienne, but his reputation is at risk if he becomes known as a homewrecker. Gustave is also friendly with Adrienne’s husband Antoine, who is an influential member of society.

Because “Eiffel” essentially erases Gustave’s family life, it makes him look like all he cared about during 1887 and 1889 were his romance with Adrienne and the construction of the Eiffel Tower. It’s a very over-simplified way of telling his story that ultimately does not do justice to the real Gustave Eiffel and his family. And after a while, Adrienne’s ambivalence about the love triangle gets very tiresome.

One of the things that “Eiffel” handles badly is the aging process for Adrienne. Even though she has scenes that take place over the course of 20 years, she doesn’t look like she’s aged at all. It’s as if the filmmakers didn’t want the lead actress in the movie to have gray hair and wrinkles. Meanwhile, there is considerable effort to make Gustave look like he’s aged over the years. “Eiffel” is also a very “male gaze” movie, because in the sex scenes with Adrienne and Gustave, she’s is the only one to have any nudity.

“Eiffel” is not a completely terrible film. The movie (whose cinematography is very gauzy) does have some very good production design and costume design. It’s a watchable movie but it’s also forgettable. The ending of “Eiffel” is as hokey as it can be and not very believable. It’s why “Eiffel” looks like a very watered-down and hollow version of this period of Gustave Eiffel’s fascinating life.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “Eiffel” in select U.S. cinemas on June 3, 2022. The movie was released in France and other countries in 2021.

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