Gustav Eiffel is on a roll. He’s just designed the Statue of Liberty, and now it’s time to take on something closer to home. We’re coming up to the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, and he has the wild and crazy idea of building a 300 meter high tower in Paris. Through the film we watch him battle finance problems, workers’ unrest and popular disapproval, but will he finally realise his dream? How can he build a tower so close to the Seine where the foundations are so shallow?
As plot spoilers go, I think this is one we can get away with. Not only do we have a huge bloody tower on the Left Bank of Paris bearing Eiffel’s name, the opening scene of the film shows the statue’s unveiling in 1889. This makes it unnecessarily difficult for the film to produce dramatic tension. For all Eiffel’s anxiety, we know he’s going to come good in the end.
Eiffel is portrayed as a radical innovator fighting conservatism. Unlike other monuments, the tower should be accessible to everyone. But how much is he really a man of the people? There is a telling scene, as workers try to organise against unsafe working conditions and a lack of pay. A union agitator climbs one of the lower rungs of the tower to demand strike action.
Eiffel responds immediately. He climbs higher up and gives an impassioned speech about them all being in it together. Sure, he doesn’t have any money to actually pay them, but some time along the line, they’ll get their money. And they should worship their joint project – boss and worker fighting together for – what exactly? A big monument on the banks of the Seine? Whatever he says (and it isn’t that impressive), the workers are soon cheering Eiffel and the strike is called off.
It’s not long before a scene in which one of the workers is performing gymnastics to ensure that the tower is properly screwed in. Eiffel is there, barking out orders to the people on ground level through a microphone, but there’s only one person in real danger here. If I were that worker, I’d be having immediate talks with my union rep about unsafe working conditions.
You’re reminded (aren’t you?) of Berthold Brecht’s poem Questions From a Worker Who Reads: “The young Alexander conquered India. // Was he alone ? // Caesar defeated the Gauls. // Did he not even have a cook with him ?” For all the talk of Eiffel fighting for equality, he is doing all this from an immense position of privilege.
Is architecture an art or a science? Or is it just a business? Eiffel is presented to us as a creative type, and at the beginning of his career as someone with no real power, a victim of the privilege of wealth. But by the time we reach the building of the Eiffel Tower, he has become a boss. Sure, he has problems raising the necessary financing from the super rich. But he is just as scared, if not more so, that the people who were actually building his tower may decide that this is something that is literally not worth risking their lives for.
In amongst all this fun, there is a slightly dull love story. A mixture of flashbacks and scenes from the present show Eiffel’s ill-fated love affair with Adrienne. They first met a couple of decades ago when Eiffel was a humble bridge builder. Even after Adrienne became pregnant with his child, her rich parents deemed him not to be husband material and forbade contact.
Eiffel later regains contact with Adrienne, now married to his old friend Antoine. The problem is, all financial backers for Eiffel’s tower have withdrawn, and Antoine is the only person able to his vanity project. Of course, it doesn’t occur to anyone to ask what Adrienne wants, nor to consider Eiffel saying “fuck it, I’ll do what makes me happy.” That’s not what makes a modern tragedy.
Moments of Eiffel in Love are undeniably impressive – not least the vertigo-inducing scenes filmed from above on top of the half-built tower. And yet the fact that we know how things will turn out, coupled with the innocuousness of the love story means that it’s hard to keep our attention. You do leave with a big “So, What?” feeling.
Eiffel in Love does raise some issues that would be potentially interesting, but proceeds to do nothing of any real interest with them. It Is ok. But sometimes we need more than ok.