The obsession driving the construction of Paris’s grand folly, the Eiffel Tower, may have rubbed off on the film’s director, Martin Bourboulon, who after four years signed off on a final cut just five days before its Sydney world premiere. He was reluctant to let go of a movie that was the biggest French production of 2020 and should have been seen first in France but, thanks to COVID, had its international  premiere season here.

The tower today is a beacon of French artistry and engineering but in the 1880s, leading up to the 1889 World’s Fair, this was far from the case.

The story – freely inspired by the facts without really sticking to them – is a well-modulated melodrama that moves between the present and 20 years earlier when the up-and-coming visionary engineer Gustave Eiffel (Romain Duris) met the love of his life, the young Adrienne Bourgès (a sublime Emma Mackey) in Bordeaux. They fall into a rapturous passion but as she plans their wedding, already pregnant, her family intervenes.

Two decades later, Bourgès and Eiffel, widowed with three children, meet again and now she is the wife of a politician who has power over Eiffel’s plan to build the 300m tower that will dominate the city’s skyline. Use rivets not bolts, Eiffel orders, so it cannot be torn down. He is battling the banks, the poorly paid workers, the politicians, city officials, and the people of Paris who at first do not like what they see.

The film’s strength lies in the fascinating technical details of how the tower was built, with the use of caissons driven through the molasses Seine mud and into firmer ground where the foundations could be safely concreted. The ingenious matching up in mid-air of tower segments that were cantilevered into precise alignment by using sand or water to raise or lower either from the ground is breathtaking.

This celebration of French genius is essentially an old-fashioned and unsurprising drama, rich in period detail, with the parallel stories of Eiffel’s twin passions deliciously entwined. It is, in other words, a perfectly warm and undemanding opening to the 32nd Alliance Francaise French Film Festival.

Eiffel is screening again on various dates as part of the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival at Palace Nova Eastend and Palace Nova Prospect until April 20. See the full schedule here and read Penelope Debelle’s preview of this year’s highlights here.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.