Gustave Eiffel, who gave France its famous tower, has long been portrayed as a man of bolts and nuts, a brilliant structural engineer and the architect of iron.
A new film which opened in France on Wednesday paints a rather different and softer picture of Eiffel as a hopeless romantic whose eponymous monument was as much a landmark to love as an engineering triumph.
eiffel, starring Romain Duris, is a period drama that suggests the tower’s A-shape was a constructed homage to Eiffel’s first great loveAdrienne Bourgès, played by Emma Mackey from the Netflix series Sex Education.
The film, directed by Martin Bourboulon, claims to be “freely inspired” by historical facts and aptly shows how Eiffel was an unpopular character in late 19th century Paris when his plans for the 10,100 ton iron tower, which was supposed to be a symbol of French industrial know-how for the Universal Exhibition of 1889, are unveiled.
The engineer had been reluctant to undertake the project; he and the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc – of the famous spire of Notre-Dame Cathedral – 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 metro system.
Historians have never established exactly what made him change his mind. The film suggests he did so after meeting Bourgès, whom he had wanted to marry years earlier, rekindling their relationship despite the fact that they and she were both married to a politician who he claims dominates the plans of the Eiffel Tower.
Eiffel received mostly positive reviews when it premiered in Australia earlier this year. One critic suggested that the obsession behind the construction of “the great madness of Paris” had rubbed off on the director, Martin Bourboulon, who only signed the film after four years, describing it as “a well-tuned melodrama…perfectly warm and undemanding”. .
Another reviewer said that Bourboulon brought the story of the tower to life “while embellishing and entangling it with a love affair that is, not to stress too much, a full load of terminals from the beginning to end”.
Eiffel dramatically depicts the anger caused by the construction of the tower. In February 1887, when the foundations of the 312-metre structure which would rise from the banks of the Seine had just been dug, an angry collective made up of the writers Guy de Maupassant and Alexandre Dumas fils wrote: “We writers, painters, sculptors, architects, passionate about the hitherto intact beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength and our indignation, in the name of French taste… against the construction in the heart of our capital of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower .”
It was meant to be dismantled after 20 years, but was for 40 years the tallest building in the world until the Chrysler Building in New York was completed in 1930, and in recent times has attracted up to 7 million visitors per year before Covid.
The film, the biggest French production of 2020, has reportedly gone through a number of iterations since its first pitch meeting in 1997. French director Luc Besson originally reportedly wanted to do it with Gérard Depardieu and Isabelle Adjani in 2000. His French Les Producers hope the film will be a “French Titanic” mirroring the success of the landmark 1997 blockbuster starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, which won 11 Oscars.