In Cinemas

Eiffel review – nonsensical biopic propped up by a fiery amour fou

Chemistry between Romain Duris and Emma Mackey just about saves an otherwise ludicrous attempt in historical revisionism

As a forgiveably contrived exercise of historical fiction, Eiffel may well be proof that cinema is fast running out of good ideas. But while the film’s premise seems to be scraped off the bottom of the biopic bargain bin – not everything needs a backstory, please, especially not a metal tower – there is something compelling about the film’s two leads on a sheer chemistry level. Starring Romain Duris as Gustave Eiffel, the man responsible for one of the world’s most iconic landmarks, and Emma Mackey as his love interest Adrienne Bourgès, you soon forgive and forget the nonsensical concept when the well-worn period romance formula works its lusty magic.

Our story begins with Eiffel immediately after he has successfully participated in the design and construction of the Statue of Liberty, the French government now wanting him to design a similarly iconic structure for the 1889 Paris World Fair. With his unbuttoned shirt and swooning good looks, it’s immediately clear that we’re not about to spend two hours navigating the thrilling waters of civil engineering. It is unlikely, too, that Eiffel would have made it outside of France to international audiences had it not starred Sex Education’s Emma Mackey, here flexing her bilingual skills to play a puckish young bourgeois woman who, after a bygone love affair, reappears in Eiffel’s life to inspire this new project of his.

Never has so much lust been mined out of a scenario involving the construction of a monument. When our two characters first lock eyes, they’re sat around a candlelit table, the engineer transfixed by Adrienne’s jewel-laden decolletage. “We must be more audacious,” she says in a libidinous whisper. They are discussing iron latticework. “It must be entirely metal,” he responds, visibly aroused by her comment. There is something pretty comical about this invented backstory in which a spurned lover literally constructs an indestructible phallic building in response to heartbreak, deliberately in the shape of his lover’s first initial (yes, really). Audacieux.

Luckily, our two leads have chemistry in spades. Despite some strange temporal chinks (26-year-old Mackey plays herself both in the past, and twenty years in the future, where she is assumed to be in her… forties?), it’s fun to watch Duris and Mackey engage in a healthy amount of carnal bodice-ripping – the only truly interesting scenes in this otherwise bloated film of nearly two hours.

Eiffel encounters the usual problems in his quest to construct this 330m structure. His workers might strike! (this film is French). And he may begin a sordid affair! (again, this film is French). While these days the real Eiffel tower is visited by bloated American tourists and braying vendors selling plastic keyrings, here Paris is colourless and uninspiring; the general atmosphere of this Belle Époque setting feels lacking from a production design standpoint. Indeed, visually, Eiffel recalls another dull, Paris-set biopic, the Marie Curie film Radioactive, where poorly lit interiors, formulaic plotting and general sense of what’s-the-point ennui prevails.

Granted, Eiffel is not the grand, sweeping, romantic epic it hopes to be. But the way it erects (pardon) its story, and how it approaches the basic principles of time and fact with an insouciant Gallic shrug, makes it easy to enjoy the film for its baseline pleasures.

Eiffel is released in UK cinemas on 12 August.

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