Martin Bourboulon’s new film about Gustav Eiffel and his famous tower immediately announces that it is “freely inspired by a true story”. Promising the untold story behind the masterpiece, eiffel opens with the famed engineer, played by Romain Duris, soaring high after the enthusiastic reception of his little gift to the United States, the Statue of Liberty. With the Universal Exhibition of 1889 being held in Paris, everyone expected something so bold and iconic from him. When an early model of the tower lands on his desk, he declares it ugly. But in the film, as in real life, Eiffel abruptly changes his mind. Overnight, he became obsessed with erecting the tower he had rejected. He announces that it will be 300 meters high, the tallest building in the world at the time. Its metal tower will not be just a building. It will defy gravity. It will attract people from all over the world. It will be France tower.
The filmmakers seized on the mysterious change of heart, creating a fictional encounter with Eiffel’s former love, Adrienne Bourgès, to explain it. In real life, Eiffel fell in love with Bourgès, when he was 27 and building a bridge near her home in Bordeaux. When his parents opposed their marriage, Eiffel gave up on love, married a family friend with whom he had five children before dying at 32. In the film, Adrienne disappears without a word, then reappears years later, after the death of his wife and around the time the ugly mini-tower appeared on his desk. Played by Franco-English actress Emma Mackey (best known for the Netflix series, Sex education), Adrienne is exquisite, an apparition from the past with a tragic explanation for her disappearance all those years ago. The passion between them still burns. While their love remains doomed, it inspires an enduring masterpiece still adored today by all of Paris and the world. Which is something.
Eiffel may not be the stuff of the Palme d’Or, but there is magic in the scenes of the iconic tower slowly and painstakingly rising towards the Parisian sky. This film is the latest in a tradition of films that pay homage to Parisian monuments and neighborhoods which attract millions of tourists to the city every year. Here are a few others that reminded me of:
Hugo (2011) – Heartwarming fantasy film by Martin Scorsese, based on Brian Selznick’s 2007 book, The invention of Hugo Cabretfeatures Mackey’s Sex education boyfriend, Asa Butterfield, as the titular Hugo, a 12-year-old boy who lives alone in the clock tower at Montparnasse Station train station in the 1930s after the death of his father (Jude Law). While setting the station’s clocks, trying to fix an automaton belonging to his father, and on the run from a villain cop Played comically by Sascha Baron Cohen, Hugo uncovers a mystery involving film pioneer George Meliès. The film is part coming-of-age story, part thrilling adventure, and part love letter to cinema. The visually stunning film won five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects.
Red Mill! (2001) — Montmartre and the iconic cabaret is the setting for one of my favorite films of all time, Baz Luhrmann’s musical masterpiece about the unconscious love affair between red Mill star performer and courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman) and starving writer, Christian (Ewan McGregor). The couple must keep their love a secret when a powerful duke offers to fund the failing club in exchange for Satine. Featuring Luhrmann’s stunning visuals and a soundtrack that blends a crazy array of pop songs from the likes of David Bowie, Elton John, Madonna and the Police with original numbers to stunning effect, this gorgeous slice of the city’s seedier side of Lights is unlike anything else ever imagined.
Amelie (2001) – Another of my all-time favourites, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s quirky romantic comedy delves into cafes and skitters along the cobbled streets of my beloved former neighborhood, Montmartre, to tell the story of Amélie, a lonely waitress, played by Audrey Tautou, who creates elaborate shenanigans that make those around her happy, while neglecting her own. The intelligent and touching film with a good dose of madness won four Césars, including best film and best director.
Marie Antoinette (2006) – The portrait of the young queen of France by Sofia Coppola honors the famous palace of Versailles. Kirsten Dunst plays the naïve 15-year-old Archduchess of Austria sent to marry the Dauphin of France, future King Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), a shy 15-year-old who refused to have sex with her. Filmed largely at the current palace (some scenes were filmed in other French chateaux, such as Vaux-le-Vicomte and the Chateau de Chantilly), the film depicts the Queen as an 18e It Girl of the Century, obsessed with clothes, candy, balls, gambling and flirting with cute accounts, as the bustle simmers, boils and, ultimately, burns around her.
Diva (1981) — Jean-Jacques Beineix’s iconic French thriller tells the story of Jules, a young postman so obsessed with American opera singer Cynthia Hawkins that he illegally records her singing at the Bouffes du Nord Theater, in defiance of his wish never to allow his singing to be recorded. Meanwhile, a prostitute being chased by a corrupt cop drops a testimony tape that exposes her crime in Jules’ mailbag moments before she is killed. For the rest of the film, Jules is chased by hoodlums and hoodlums all over Paris, including through the metro. The film is sleek, stressful and, thanks in part to its soaring soundtrack, surprisingly beautiful.
Hatred (1995) – Many films celebrate the beauty and glamor of the French capital. We have all glimpsed scenes of lovers strolling along the quay of the seinesipping Red wine at an outdoor café or gaping in front of the Mona Lisa. So there is Hate (hate)a film that lands like a punch in the face, written and directed by Matthieu Kassovitz, who would become a well-known actor in films such as Amelie and the addictive and violent television seriesThe Office of Legends. Shot in black and white, the film features Vincent Cassel, Hubert Koundé and Saïd Taghmaoui in the role of three friends from the suburbs, all from immigrant families, all in shock after their friend was seriously injured while in police custody. Riots ensue, but Vinz, Hubert and Saïd remain terrified, still looking for an outlet for their rage and sadness. The film, which won the César for Best Picture and the Best Director award at Cannes, feels particularly relevant in the wake of George Floyd and other recent incidents of structural racism and injustice. As for the landmarks in the film, at one point the friends have a blowout, and Hubert and Saïd leave a seething Vinz in Paris standing by a giant 70-ton sandstone statue of Henri Miller d a head resting on a cupped hand. The statue is called Listen-Listen.
Eiffel hits theaters on June 3.
Andrea Meyer has written creative treatments for commercial directors, a sex and film column for IFC, and a horror script for MGM. Her first novel, room for love (St. Martin’s Press) is a romantic comedy based on an article she wrote for the New York Post, for which she pretended to look for a roommate as a ploy to meet men. A longtime film and entertainment journalist and former editor of indieWIRE, Andrea has interviewed more actors and directors than she can remember. Her articles and essays have appeared in publications such as Elle, Glamour, Variety, Time Out NY and the Boston Globe.