The image of blue-lipped Jack and Rose, near-frozen and struggling to balance on one piece of driftwood that – let’s be honest – 100% could have fit them both, is seared into our memories and hearts forever. It’s history. It’s pop culture canon. It will always be the moment. So understandably, for financial reasons, it wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world to attempt to replicate some of the commercial success of James Cameron’s multiple Oscar-winning Titanic. The producers of period romance Eiffel reportedly have high hopes of doing just that. But is Eiffel the 'French Titanic'? There are steamy parallels in the plot, yes. But Sex Education’s Emma Mackey feels wasted as a 19th century manic pixie dream girl/one-dimensional muse behind one of the biggest architectural feats of the modern world.
Tellingly, the first time we see Mackey as Adrienne Bourgès is behind wisps of smoke, directly corresponding to the intangible and flimsy nature of her character – so vapid she could disintegrate into thin air. She is positioned as the love interest (obsession) of important historical figure, French civil engineer Gustave Eiffel (Romain Duris) who – at the point we meet him at the beginning of the film in Paris – is being widely celebrated after his success constructing the metal framework of the Statue of Liberty. Off the back of this triumph his sights are supposedly set on the Paris Métro system but upon bumping into former lover Adrienne, he becomes frenzied into building his looming tower of passion aka the Eiffel Tower.
Is there much truth in it all? Director Martin Bourboulon admits he was "freely inspired" by the historical facts, such as the way in which Gustave Eiffel became an unpopular figure in Paris the second construction started, with locals calling the tower a "truly tragic street lamp". The star-crossed lovers element is a little more fictitious, not that this matters too much; Titanic similarly embellished a monumental historical event. But Titanic focused on two anonymous, ordinary individuals amid some 2,200 passengers, which makes it more believable because we can construct our own narratives and possibilities. "They could have existed!" we plead, exasperated, to weirded-out friends and colleagues. The second the focus turns to decorated historical individuals whose entire biographies are just a few clicks away on Wikipedia, it takes away from the plausibility. We viewers demand mystery and intrigue!
The plot similarities are pretty uncanny. In Titanic, Jack saves Rose from the water. Same in Eiffel. In Titanic, Rose was betrothed to another. Same in Eiffel. In Titanic, there is a jealous, meddling partner. Same in Eiffel. In Titanic, there is a high-up sunset scene where the lovers meet and emotions swell. Same in Eiffel, complete with the very same lighting. In Titanic, the lovers discover each other’s playful side after Irish jigging and spinning giddily around the lower decks. In Eiffel, the lovers discover each other’s playful side after engaging in breathy musical chairs and spinning giddily around Adrienne’s garden.
Now the differences. Titanic passes the Bechdel test. Rose is headstrong and three-dimensional and talks about other things besides Jack, throwing her final 'fuck you' by cackling as she plunges the Heart of the Ocean into the sea. The power dynamic between Jack and Rose is somewhat level; their financial situations may be drastically imbalanced but they each have things to contribute, making Leo and Kate leads in their own right. Eiffel does not pass the Bechdel test. All we know about Adrienne is that she is obsessed with Gustave.
Adrienne's husband tells Gustave: "[She] is a great admirer of yours, she even read one of your technical works." A little patronising but go off, I guess? Her husband goes on to brag: "She’s astonishing, very curious, everything interests her," as if she’s a performing baby meerkat that pops out from under his dress coat to entertain his friends on the odd social occasion. After Gustave brazenly tries to kiss Adrienne while there are potential witnesses nearby and she rebuffs him – rightly so, as a married woman whose reputation could be destroyed – he sulks and calls her a "spoiled child", chiding her simply because he couldn’t control his impulses.
The film is 80% longing glances (one scene just sees Gustave fixating – rather creepily – on Adrienne’s décolletage during a busy dinner soirée) and 20% montages where Gustave is very much the tortured genius, wildly scribbling his designs (the final reveal, which I won't spoil, is really quite a laugh out loud moment). Adrienne has no discernible hopes or dreams and is instead just a muse of beauty and curiosity; a plot vehicle to whip up the uncontrollable fervour of the protagonist so that he can design a wonder of the world. And what a shame. British-French actress Mackey, who blew viewers away as complex and sardonic Maeve Wiley on Netflix’s Sex Education, is really scintillating, shining in the dialogue and scenes she has been given. It feels like such a wasted opportunity for her talents. #Justice4Emma
Eiffel is available to stream in Australia on Apple TV and the Prime Video Store.