The biopic format allows for so little spontaneity that the best Martin Bourboulon’s Eiffel can do to shake up the genre’s rigid structural demands is simply arrange the life of its subject, engineer Gustave Eiffel (Romain Duris) out of order. The constant movement back and forth in time does not offer compelling contrasts between periods, but simply confounds an otherwise-straightforward narrative. This buries important details — like, for instance, the fact that Eiffel did not actually design the iconic tower that bears his name, instead buying it from two other engineers after first mocking their idea as garish and too modern.
This detail would be a potentially interesting foundation for a film that undermines the usual tropes of biopics, revealing the overstated case for one man’s mark on the landscape of the City of Lights. But instead, Eiffel reaffirms all the common touchstones of the genre. There’s its depiction of the protagonist as an underdog struggling to realize a passion project in the face of copious objections from aesthetes, as well as the Catholic Church, which fears the proposed iron monstrosity will literally tower over Paris’s existing classical architecture and the majesty of Notre Dame. And because behind every great man is a woman, Eiffel only truly decides to build in the first place out of some kind of misplaced show of affection for an old flame, Adrienne Bourgès (Emma Mackey), to make a defiant gesture of self-worth to her aristocratic family for shunning him.
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Tying a 984-feet-tall vanity project to the romantic foibles of the man who owns the company that builds it verges on the parodic, and things only get more absurd when the film folds in further Euro cinema clichés. Eiffel, born to a middle-class family, constantly rails about class consciousness and how the tower will be accessible to all of Paris’s citizens, rich and poor. Yet for all this talk, the engineer conspicuously spends much of his time attempting to climb the ladder into the upper crust, largely ignoring the average person in a never-ending bid to impress his social betters.
The usual biopic aesthetic is firmly in place here. The camera moves in stately, level motions through handsomely baroque interiors of rich wooden hues that contrast with the smoggy dreariness of the industrialized city outside. But the achronological ordering of the scenes, which teases out the “tragedy” of Eiffel and Adrienne’s doomed romance, does nothing more than prolong a dull love triangle that never builds any emotional resonance precisely because of the endless jumping around.
The fact that Eiffel is just as dull a historical figure as a romantic one only sinks the film further. This is the story of a man who buys a patent so he can slap his name on the final product, who talks a big game about utopianism while increasingly isolating himself among the elites, and whose artistic drive is inseparable from his hang-ups over women. Eiffel inadvertently paints its protagonist not as a great man worthy of scrutiny or praise, but as the Elon Musk of his day.
Eiffel opens in theaters June 3.