I love my local independent movie theater but have to admit to being disappointed with their decision to show more Hollywood blockbusters, heavily diluting what used to be a steady stream of foreign and independent films. For this reason, I make an effort to attend every French film that brightens their marquis. Such was the case last week with Eiffel, a movie about the famous French architect and engineer who designed the Eiffel Tower. Unfortunately, despite the hype and captivating trailer, I left the theater feeling underwhelmed and perplexed. Underwhelmed, because there was far too little about the actual construction of the Eiffel Tower, a topic that could probably be made into its own mini-series. And perplexed, because I wondered how much of the passionate-bordering-on-insipid love story that interweaves the plot was actually true.
Truth or Fiction
Released in France last October, Eiffel tells the story of Gustave Eiffel’s famous project to build the tallest structure in the world in time for the 1889 Universal Exposition. In real life, Eiffel (played by Romain Duris) was initially reluctant to take up the challenge but ended up entering a design competition for the World’s Fair’s centerpiece and won.
The plot of the movie, explains his change of heart through a chance encounter with a former lover, Adrienne Bourgès (played by Emma Mackey). Now, obsessed with a possible reconciliation with his former fiancé, Eiffel is determined to construct a tower in the shape of the letter “A”. The 300-meter structure will be an architectural triumph. It will further cement France’s place as a global technological leader. And, perhaps most importantly, serve as an eternal tribute to the dazzling Adrienne. Leaving the theater, I was unwilling to place any bets on the last part of this hyper-dramatic trifecta.
Once home, I asked Google to tell me more and was surprised when my magic box informed me that at least part of the relationship between Gustave Eiffel and Adrienne Bourgès is based on reality. The two were indeed engaged until Bourgès’s overbearing father unilaterally canceled their wedding. So, flashbacks in the film to their early relationship are grounded in the truth (if you leave out the parts about Eiffel saving Adrienne from drowning and unknowingly getting her pregnant). Scenes of the couple’s early sensual frolicking, however, are likely grounded in fiction. Eiffel’s actual assessment of Adrienne, who was 10 years younger, is a bit less romantic than depicted in the film.
|« C’est évidemment une fille intelligente, de goûts simples, d’humeur douce et affectueuse, et susceptible d’une grande tendresse mais non de passion, et surtout profondément honnête ; une épouse sûre enfin et une femme de bon conseil à l’occasion. Comme nature extérieure, c’est une très belle fille qui deviendra surtout et qui restera longtemps une très belle femme, d’une robust santé et capable de remplir au mieux les fonctions maternelles. »|
— Gustave Eiffel
|“[Adrienne] is obviously an intelligent girl, of simple tastes, with a sweet and affectionate humor, and inclined to great tenderness yet not passion, and above all profoundly honest; at last, a sure spouse and a woman of good council when needed. As for her external qualities, she’s a very beautiful girl who will become and will remain for a long time a very beautiful woman, with robust health and capable of fulfilling maternal functions quite well.”|
— Gustave Eiffel
I came across this quote in a fascinating article about the women that most affected Gustave Eiffel’s life. The author, Marie Petitot, does a beautiful job of summarizing Eiffel’s actual life story en français, which turns out to be 10 times more interesting than the film. If you’re now wondering whether Eiffel ever re-encountered Adrienne after their split, the answer is no. While constructing the Eiffel Tower, he surely remembered his former sweetheart but (as the film accurately hints) his wife of 15 years, Marie Gaudelet, and his eldest child, Claire, were by far the most important women of his life.
Just the Facts, Madame
If you sense that Eiffel touched a nerve, you’re right. On one hand, I’m grateful for any French cinema that hits my local box office. I definitely appreciated the cinematography, special effects, costumes, and scenery that glided across the big screen. I’m grateful to the creative team and art department that transported me to a different time and place and let me envision what it must have been like to live in Paris at the end of the 19th century—a witness to such a daring and controversial undertaking. But when a film purports to cover a true story—one that is filled with risk and inventiveness and time pressures and interpersonal complexity—why reinvent 50% (or more) of the action? Producer Vanessa van Zuylen proudly compared her movie to a “French Titanic”. I couldn’t have said it better myself. That’s exactly what bugs me!
What do you think? Are you more a fan of films like All the President’s Men, starring Robert Redford and Al Pacino, which closely follows the actions of Washington Post reporters that broke the Watergate scandal? Or, are you mainly looking for entertainment and able to overlook inaccuracies in films like The Blind Side, starring Sandra Bullock, which greatly overstated the influence of NFL player Michael Oher’s adoptive mother? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments below.