Love stories are rich fodder for cinema and, especially come February, pop up everywhere. Typically, these stories are focused on the young: first love, young love, naïve love in high school or college, or right at the start of the protagonists’ adult-life journey. Thing is, there’s more than just the young who fall in and out of love and find themselves on unexpected adventures, make glorious mistakes, and recover with quiet victories. Director Archie Borders’s Under the Eiffel Tower is one such film which explores the finding of love at a later stage in life and do so in a reticent tone and approach, not in grand romantic fashion. The result is a charming adventure carried by an engrossing cast set against a backdrop of beautiful French wine country.
Stuart (Matt Walsh) is a mess. Despondent and miserable from a life without meaning, Stuart is invited by his two friends, Frank and Tillie (David Wain and Michaela Watkins), to go with them on a family vacation to France as they celebrate their daughter Rosalind (Dylan Gelula) earning her Ph.D. Confusing closeness for intimacy, Stuart spontaneously proposes to Rosalind, earning him a fierce tongue-lashing from his friends and a quick banishment from the trip. However, upon meeting fellow lonesome traveler Liam (Reid Scott), the two embark on an accidental adventure which places them in the path of Louise (Judith Godrèche), a winery owner on her way home from a trip. Immediately smitten, the two men compete for Louise’s attention. However, love is about more than fun and games and not all love is a prize to be won.
Under the Eiffel Tower surprises more often than expected and seems, at first, to be a generic romantic coming-of-middle-age comedy. Written by Borders, David Henry, and Godrèche, the script walks the line between the predictable and the surprising by leaning into stereotypes just enough for the film to feel magical without becoming offensive. While in the U.S., Stuart’s presented as a messy slob whose drinking may have led him to be fired from a job he became bored by. The opportunity for new surrounds feels like a predictable “fresh start,” even as he ends up unexpectedly going on an adventure in the French countryside. The real freshness stems from Stuart’s ability to roll with things, at their best and worst. He seems totally even-keeled when he has no money and no bed, the script opting to demonstrate he’s more of an adult than the initial introduction suggests. Also, just as the script begins to suggest that it’s his infatuation with Louise that makes him a better person, it provides small reminders that it’s the actual breaking free from his rut which invigorates, offers agency, and instills a revived sense of purpose. That he falls in love seems secondary. Agency of self, true dominion over one’s self, offers the greatest joy and leads to a mature love, one that is filled with honest moments, that is robust with genuine trust, and that is unafraid of the monotony of the everyday. This last notion, that being somewhere new is not immune to the feeling of stagnation, is one of the bigger plus points of the script. Anywhere can be paradise. Anywhere can be purgatory. It’s all in how we engage our world.
The performances from the cast – as well as their real-world professional relationships – assist in helping Under the Eiffel Tower stand out from the pack of romantic comedies. Walsh, Watkins, and Scott are VEEP veterans, whose professional paths have crossed with Wain before, as well. Because of this, the chemistry between the foursome is fantastic. It’s easy to buy Stuart, Frank, and Tillie’s relationship even though they’re given very little exposition to explain it. This aids in making the couple’s constant belittlement of Stuart more sad and painful. Similarly, it makes Liam and Stuart’s fast kinship seem less unlikely, given the utterly opposite nature of these men. Liam’s written as athletic, uncouth, and vulgar, whereas Stuart is educated, poetic, and too polite. These two characters make for great entertainment, but the fact that they gained a fast friendship in real life is a touch less likely. However, there’s something about both actors which makes these quick companions seem authentic to the moment. Being in the moment is what makes love feel authentic and comedy honest, making Walsh’s (himself a great comedic dramatist) dry delivery a boon to the script. Rather than coming across as snide or snooty, Walsh makes Stuart perpetually aware of how his words impact others, adding subtle depth to general conversation or compliments. He also makes the seemingly Renaissance man-level skills Stuart possesses absolutely natural.
As Louise, Godrèche is the only member of the central cast who hasn’t shared the screen with any of the other members. On the one hand, this increases the sense of “otherness” which Stuart feels in France, but, on the other, enables Louise to be as much of an enigma to the audience as Stuart is. Without any sense of the actors’ history together, every conversation they share, every reaction to the other, feels unique and special. Wonderfully, and this may perhaps be attributed to Godrèche’s influence on the script, Louise is never portrayed as lost or in search of rescuing. She’s a successful business woman whose true problem is people stifling her agency. This particular aspect makes Godrèche’s portrayal of Louise convey strength and comfort, even when the situation may seem outwardly uncomfortable. She is her ultimately own person, not what others project onto her. For a romantic comedy which stumbles into a standard trope of its protagonist falling in love with a foreign girl, this aspect of characterization and performance is absolutely refreshing.
Though there’s magic in Under the Eiffel Tower, it gets dramatically reduced under any scrutiny. The constant revelations about Stuart seem too good to be true merely for the fact that there’s no evidence of his talents prior to needing them. If you think your friend is in crisis and you bring him along on a family trip, perhaps don’t abandon him in the country after what was obviously a completely insane spontaneous action. Even worse, why constantly ridicule and belittle him every time your paths cross? The inciting incident which separates them is meant as a catalyst for the story, one which does come around in several useful ways to both develop characters and the story’s conclusion, however, it feels unrealistic in a film which seems to pride itself being genuine.
Ultimately, if you’re looking for a cinematic experience which will play with the tropes you know and still let you have fun, Under the Eiffel Tower is for you. It doesn’t play things too safe, nor does it get too creative, but there’s something undeniably genuine about the characterizations and the core narrative that can’t be dismissed. The cast’s extraordinary chemistry only bolsters an engaging tale of a man refinding himself after getting lost. The fact that it just so happens to include a silly love story doesn’t hurt either.
In theaters February 8th, 2019.
On VOD and digital February 12th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.