Let me first give a little disclaimer here and say that I’m not a French speaker. I’ve traveled in the country recently enough and have watched enough French cinema that I can pick up on a decent number of words, but I’m far from conversant. I raise this to say – as I’m about to criticize the writing of this film – that it’s entirely possible that the script the actors are reading is far better than the subtitles I read during Eiffel. Accordingly, I’m not going to focus my complaints on the awkward turns of phrase and rather on the broad plotting of the film.
That said, the structure of this movie is bafflingly stupid. In a play for a grand era spanning romance, the filmmakers have thrown away any real attempt to tell a cohesive story. The film juxtaposes two plots. The first focuses on the construction of the Eiffel Tower under the mindful eye of Gustave Eiffel. Inspired by a mysterious woman, Eiffel throws away his dreams of building a new metro for the 1889 World’s Fair and, instead, turns his intense focus to building a tower made out of the most modern materials that will be the tallest building the world has ever known. The second, told in flashbacks to 1860, deals with Gustave’s love affair with a woman named Adrienne Bourgès. Bourgès reenters Gustave’s life in the present just as the Eiffel Tower project is percolating; she is married to a politically connected acquaintance of Gustave’s and it’s immediately clear the two parted on difficult terms.
In starkly contrived ways, the film twists itself to present the relationship and the construction project along two identical tracks. Gustave’s initial courtship runs parallel to his winning the Eiffel project; the couple’s romance pairs with the Tower’s early construction success. You can certainly surmise that their split will happen just as the tower runs into problems. It’s just a ghastly structural choice that prevents both plots from gaining sufficient traction.
The two star-crossed lovers are surrounded by ghoulish archetypal characters. The wealthy father who doesn’t want his daughter to be with “just” an architect. The cuckold husband who turns to outright villainy when he doesn’t get his way. He has all the subtlety of Billy Zane in Titanic, a clear spiritual influence on Eiffel. There’s a last moment twist in the 1860 story that was so breathtakingly foolhardy I couldn’t help but guffaw at the movie. Even the main characters themselves are written bizarrely. Adrienne begins the film as a cliché manic pixie dream girl. She floats in and out of Gustave’s life and does “crazy” things like fling herself into a river, apparently unable to swim, to get his attention. It’s hard to believe that any woman could find this Gustave Eiffel all that appealing, a self-serious mope of a man apparently devoid of good humor, social graces, or charm.
There’s even a total disregard for any sense of time. Emma Mackey (Sex Education, Death on the Nile) is 26 years old. She plays what I assume is roughly 20 in the romance scenes, which is fine. That would make her about 49 when the Eiffel Tower is constructed. She’s aged up by… putting her hair up. Eiffel’s daughter in the film is played by a 25 year old actress and her character is introduced by announcing she plans to wed (Armande Boulanger, Portrait of a Lady on Fire). They don’t look all that different in age. It’s just a very strange, distracting choice, especially when Romain Duris (The Beat That My Heart Skipped, All the Money in the World) is at least given a heavy beard, weathered skin, and a worn down posture. And, damningly, it speaks to the lack of attention paid to the mechanics of this film’s story.
I’m venting my frustrations about this film because there’s so much promise here. The production values are exquisite! The film is beautifully lensed and had an extremely keen eye for production design. The costumes are impressive and cover a huge swath of the Parisian populace. The construction of the Tower itself is impressive with well done CGI sequences focusing on some of the more harrowing moments of construction.
Mackey and Duris are absolutely fantastic. Both sell the hell out of the romance and have an electric palpable chemistry. Put simply, I believe these people want to fuck, and in a movie that needs the chemistry of the leads to keep the film afloat, they deliver. Mackey has this slight puckishness to every line reading – she imbues a bit of chaos into dialogue that would otherwise feel staid.
I really wanted to like this film. It’s extremely old fashioned – in exactly the way I often miss! – but I found the plotting and character motivations simply too sloppy and convoluted for the film to work. Nevertheless, the chemistry between Mackey and Duris and the sumptuous production values leave me with a fascinating near miss.
Eiffel will be released in select theaters today, June 3.