French Blockbuster Disappoints, Reinventing the Life of Gustave Eiffel

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.

Passion atop the Eiffel Tower
Eiffel embraces Adrienne Bourgès after her harrowing climb in flowing skirts and high heels.

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.

Eiffel dances with Adrienne
One of several long scenes where few words are exchanged between the handsome couple.

Fact Checking

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.

Eiffel backed by his daughter Claire
Eiffel greets admirers while his daughter Claire assists over his right shoulder.

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!

Eiffel directs his crew
An insightful scene where Eiffel directs members of his crew to adjust the height of one of the supporting legs of the tower.

Your Thoughts

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.

Eiffel in his office
Scenes of Eiffel’s office, plans, and construction site were beautifully reconstructed.

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.


  1. I tend to be wary of… “biopics”? Whatever their nationality. Producers tend to twist reality and insert passion, sex, romance into a plot to gain views… It results in changing history.
    A few years ago, in Paris, I indulged in many nights at the movies… current French cinema does not impress me. Too many clichés. (But then I am getting increasingly critical of France, which I see going knowingly into the “abîme” and doing zip about it.
    Two examples of “changing” history are two -excellent- films: Out of Africa and Gorillas in the mist. Both films pushed their heroines’ work into the limelight. But the book covers will forever change their face. Karen Blixen now has Meryl Streep’s face forever, Dian Fossey is Sigourney Weaver…
    (reading Beryl Markham’s fab book now. Thank God, no movie yet. She still has her face on the Book cover…)
    Au revoir.

    • I enjoyed The Paris Wife by the same author. Happily, she took far fewer liberties distorting the truth. Let me know how you like Circling the Sun. I notice that it’s billed as fiction.

      I recall appreciating the two films that you mentioned. But, I didn’t know O of A was based on a true story.

      • Oh. So you’re the one who mentioned Beryl Markham? What I’m reading is her book, West with the wind… (I lived in Kenya, amongst other places, so it does speak to me…)
        O of A is based on Karen Blixen’s “mémoires” of her life in Africa. I used to ride horses near her house. (Though I didn’t know that then…)Au revoir.

  2. I completely agree! It was unnecessarily sentimental and sappy!

  3. It is indeed annoying when a film which purports to depict real a real person or event fictionalizes too much. Obviously some changes are needed to make a viable movie, but filmmakers do have a habit of inserting bland and conventional romantic stories (either wholly invented or else concocted by massively distorting some real relationship in the subject’s life) because they seem to think no movie is complete without one. It’s hard enough to fit the complexities of a real historical figure into the running time of a movie without wasting a chunk of the time on such a contrivance.

    I agree that the romantic element here seems to have been greatly exaggerated, even if the two of them had been engaged. Engagement and marriage in those days often had little to do with romantic feeling. Your quote/translation of Eiffel’s “assessment” of Bourgès reads almost like an evaluation of a horse he was considering buying.

    If filmmakers want to tell a largely fictional story, they really should create original fictional characters to tell it about, rather than seriously distorting the story of a real person.

    I’m reminded of my sense of irritation about another film purporting to tell the story of a rather different French historical figure in whom I was interested at the time — 2000’s Quills, about the Marquis de Sade, which seriously altered and rather sanitized important details about his life. Sade was a complex, fascinating, and yes, very disturbing character. There’s no way around the disturbing part. If you’re going to make a movie about him at all, you might as well go for broke and tell the story honestly.

    after her harrowing climb in flowing skirts and high heels

    I will never understand why women put up with high heels. They look hideously uncomfortable and frankly dangerous to go up or down ordinary stairs in, never mind a gargantuan half-finished construction project which is harrowing even for trained construction workers.

    • Always a pleasure to hear your take Infidel. The assessment of Adrienne reminded me of my father’s assessment of farm animals when we went to the State fair.

      The Marquis de Sade seems like it would have all the salacious details necessary for a box office smash. Very disheartening to learn that even that story was altered beyond recognition. Have you read a book about him that you’d recommend?

  4. Most of what I know about Sade comes from The Marquis de Sade: A New Biography by Donald Thomas (1992), which I do recommend. I read it at around the same time Quills came out and was able to make comparisons.

    Sade shouldn’t be whitewashed. He was an abuser of women and children who got away with it as much as he did because of his aristocratic status, and his philosophy viewed sexual perverts as a sort of master race who he believed should be able to exploit the rest of humanity. On the other hand, due to some bizarre circumstance I forget the details of, he was appointed as a judge after the French revolution and was scrupulously fair even when personal enemies were brought before him for trial — he was eventually removed from his position because the regime wanted executions and he was finding too many people innocent. He opposed the death penalty on the grounds that only passion can justify murder, and the state is not capable of passion. He exemplifies the odd fact that profound evil and a kind of good can coexist in the same person. Quills, while an entertaining-enough movie, largely ignored these realities in favor of grotesque depictions of murder and necrophilia which didn’t happen in reality, trying to concoct a controversy about the effects of unconstrained free expression which doesn’t actually arise from Sade’s real story. The reality of Sade’s life may be too disquieting to be filmable, but that doesn’t excuse such distortions.

  5. Alas for filmmakers who don’t trust their material!

    • No kidding. It seems much riskier to me to recreate a new narrative than sticking with the actual story, especially if it’s already filled with interesting and suspenseful elements.

  6. Good question. A biopic that is faithful to the facts seems incredibly hard to find. I can enjoy some movies that depart from the strict lines of fact for dramatic purposes, but when they are trying too hard and falling into cliche and sentimentality it is just annoying. Plus, if storytellers are going to play fast and loose with the facts I would really like to see some kind of summary of the real story. (This applies to historical fiction as well.)

  7. I am neither predisposed to like or avoid a film based on its authenticity: if it seems worthwhile, I’ll view it. But I often wonder and worry—even more so today—about films that cover important and controversial historical events and many viewers think they’re documentaries or largely true. Art is often more memorable than life—and that can be good or bad.

    • It’s hard for me to embrace fictional recreations of actual events, even when the point of the movie is to be artsy, as in Oliver Stones portrayal of The Doors. This post has made me think of other historical films I loved or hated. Apollo 13 in the former category, Argo (about an Iran hostage rescue) in the latter category.

  8. Koechlin and Nouguier designed the Eiffel tower, working for Eiffel’s company.

    • Thanks for the info. Eiffel certainly headed a large enterprise by the time he got the Eiffel Tower contract. He probably had little to do with the construction process as well as the design, unlike in the movie.

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