In the mid-1880s, Gustave Eiffel cared little about the upcoming Exposition Universelle. He cared even less about the project for a tower that his engineers, Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier, had just pitched to him. The founder of Eiffel & Cie was obsessed with the concept of an underground train. “The subway is what I’m interested in,” he said. “I don’t see why I would build something pointless which we’ll have to dismantle just afterwards.” He told his two employees to get back to work and forget about their “pylon.”
So why did the “iron magician” change his mind? According to legend, a woman was the reason for this U-turn. Gustave Eiffel was a genius inventor behind works of art across five continents, showered with glory for having designed the internal framework of the Statue of Liberty, and the most famous French engineer of the Belle Epoque. However, his private life has remained a mystery. We know that his wife Marguerite died of tuberculosis in 1877, leaving him a widower with five children. But the movie really gets started when the workaholic father and ill-tempered boss unexpectedly bumps into a childhood sweetheart.
“He was supposed to marry her, but it never happened,” said actor Romain Duris, who plays an elegant, modern Gustave Eiffel, in a radio interview with France Inter. “We started with a small detail about this encounter with Adrienne Bourgès, who did actually exist, and developed a love story around it.” Eiffel was 28 and from a modest family, and had been tasked with building an iron bridge 1,600 feet long over the Garonne River in Bordeaux. Adrienne was 18 and the daughter of a successful merchant who was renting his workshops out to the building site. But her parents refused the marriage proposal and the two lovers were forced to separate.
When they meet again 20 years later in Paris, Adrienne – played by the brilliant Emma Mackey, a Franco-British actress discovered in the Netflix series Sex Education – is married to one of Eiffel’s friends. No matter. A timid “Bonsoir” and an interminable exchange of glances are enough to make the pioneer forget all about his subway plans. “A tower,” he promises Industry Minister Edouard Lockroy. “One thousand feet tall. Made entirely of metal.” More than enough to compete with the Washington Monument, standing at 554 feet, and to revive France’s global reputation following its humiliating military defeat against Prussia.
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With a stroke of a pencil, Eiffel revisited the plans put forward to him. He widened the base, curved the four props, and drew huge arches beneath the struts on the first floor. A letter slowly emerged: a capital “A.” For Adrienne? We may never know. Regardless, the project won over the jury of the Exposition Universelle and construction on the foundations began at the top of the Champs-de-Mars park on January 28, 1887. The 18,038 metallic sections were cast in the Eiffel workshops in Levallois-Perret, northwest of Paris, before being assembled on the building site.
While the movie’s love story is often a little drawn out, it is used as pretext to present the history of the tower, which was almost never built due to violent criticisms of the project. Residents saw the monument as a “wart on the face of Paris,” while Guy de Maupassant declared that it was an “inevitable, torturous nightmare.” Paul Verlaine compared it to a “skeleton,” and J.K. Huysmans likened it to a “solitary suppository riddled with holes”! As well as the critics, there were also strikes and reluctant bankers to deal with. Despite these challenges, Eiffel and his 250 workers persevered, working nine hours a day in winter and twelve in summer, with just one fatal accident in 26 months.
Throughout the movie, which skillfully combines live-action footages and digital imagery, audiences will delight in seeing the tower rise from the ground and reach towards the sky until it overlooks the rooftops of the capital. Set to music by Alexandre Desplat, the scenes in the caissons – devices used to dry-cement the tower’s foundations in the damp earth of the Seine River’s banks – create a suffocating atmosphere, while those filmed at great heights, balancing on the beams, are enough to make anyone dizzy.
The tower, which was inaugurated on March 31, 1889, was never dismantled. Buffalo Bill and the British royal family were actually the first famous visitors to ride its steam-powered elevators! Today, it attracts seven million curious onlookers every year, three-quarters of whom come from abroad. More than enough to rebuff Eiffel’s critics, who used to ask him if he was worried that “such a monster would scare all the tourists away from Paris.” To which the engineer would reply: “Quite the opposite. The tourists of Europe and the New World will flock to see it in their thousands.”