“He was the Steve Jobs of his time”: Romain Duris embodies Gustave Eiffel | Romain Duris

IIf Michael Caine is the London actor par excellence, Romain Duris could become his Parisian equivalent. Born and raised in the city, he shot to international fame in 2005 playing real estate hustler with ambitions to be a pianist in Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped. Quick to punch but shrewd in his tact, dropping rats in a bag on unwanted tenants while wearing Cuban heels, he was Parisian squalor and glamor in a snake-hip paradox. Then he cashed in his disheveled hair Bohemian bourgeois stamp in Dans Paris by Christopher Honoré and Paris by Cédric Klapisch. And now the pinnacle: he is starring in a new biopic about the engineer Gustave Eiffel.

Duris could not resist the omnipresence of man. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m Parisian, but Eiffel is really a figure in France that matters,” he says. “He’s everywhere – there are lots of Gustave Eiffel bridges, lots of buildings at the bottom of courtyards signed by him.” And, of course, this tower. The film shows the tense atmosphere surrounding the competition to design a landmark exhibit for the 1889 World’s Fair; how Eiffel’s peers and the press viewed what was the world’s tallest structure at the time as a dangerous act of hubris – and how he fought to make it happen.

He was, in the eyes of Duris, the Steve Jobs of his time: “He made it look easy, like child’s play. A bit like Jobs, who had the intelligence to consider his computers almost like toys that anyone can use. Eiffel made the tower in sections in gigantic warehouses in Paris, and really put it together as if it were a children’s game with numbered pieces. A quick and agile conversationalist, eagerly pointing out the aesthetic qualities of his projects, Duris has been talking on the phone since shooting the film he’s working on in southwestern France.

Duris also makes it look easy, playing Eiffel as some kind of dashing control freak, worrying about wind speed and hydraulic pressures. And what kind of photo of Paris would it be without a bit of romance? Director Martin Bourboulon – who took over the project after it had gone through many years, including Ridley Scott’s – gives Eiffel an unrequited love affair with the daughter of a Bordeaux landowner, Adrienne (from superficial suggestions in his biography).

In truth, this plot of forbidden love – based on the plan of Titanic – seems a bit schematic, even inadvertently comical: as Eiffel tries to win her back, the tower becomes less prideful than exciting – the greatest supercompensatory erection until the end. Trump Tower. But Duris thinks the flashbacks energized the storyline, as did the casting of British-French Sex Education actor Emma Mackey as her lover: “It’s like when you cook mayonnaise, and it takes.”

The film also came to pay tribute to the architect father of Duris, Philippe, who died at the end of 2019, just before a filming interruption imposed by Covid. His father’s job is another reason why he got involved: “It’s a job that speaks to me. His specific blend of flair and accuracy was familiar to him. “One thing that my father and Eiffel had in common was that they made their plans freehand, without a ruler or a computer. So I always used to see these huge plans around the house, drawn by hand, and that has always impressed me.

Duris clearly inherited some of this talent and first trained as an illustrator. But his drawings were anarchic, sexual, deliberately: “It was my way of doing compared to my father. Life pushed him further down the free art path as a teenager, when a casting director spotted him outside a school in Paris’ third arrondissement as he waited to pick up his girlfriend. “It had happened a few times before. I looked a little pissed off: hair up, pants covered in paint. So people would stop and ask me to do commercials, movies, photos. But I always said no.”

Bohemian bourgeois The Beat My Heart Skipped (2005). Photography: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

This time, a friend persuaded him to read the script that came with the bid for Cédric Klapisch’s memoir of rowdy Parisian youth in the 1970s, Le Péril Jeune. Fortunately, Duris liked it, and it was the start of a partnership that saw them make seven films together. What does he think the casting director saw in him then? “It’s hard to have that kind of distance,” he said. “But I think it was a good mix of fragility and modesty, but at the same time it was a bit of a loudmouth.” He mocks. “You know, that kind of big I-am in school, the kind where you’re like, ‘Oh-la-la, it’s either going to end badly or it’s going to become something.'”

Now he is one of the most sought after French actors, so not bad. The 48-year-old is currently filming Animal Kingdom, a dystopian sci-fi film about humans who transform into animals interned in concentration camps. Production was halted until the fall as some sets burned in the recent wildfires: “It’s a disaster, but that’s the world we live in,” Duris says.

The film sounds like another idiosyncratic turn in an unclassifiable recent filmography that has oscillated between more traditional kicks like Eiffel and 2018’s post-apocalyptic thriller Hold Your Breath, gruff social realism like 2019’s Our Struggles and a few dollops of period drama. It seems that he is no longer locked in the charms and lucks of his early career, but rather looking for direction in this delicate phase after 40 years. Despite his magnetic turn in The Beat That My Heart Skipped and a few films – Heartbreaker and Popular – at the turn of the last decade that attempted to position him in the Euro-swoon category, and a small English speaking role in Ridley Scott’s All the Money du Monde, an international career did not happen to him.

Like cooking mayonnaise… with Emma Mackey in Eiffel.
Like cooking mayonnaise… Duris with Emma Mackey in Eiffel.

But Duris is relaxed about it, saying he doesn’t view his career as something that needs direction: “I like managing my present, my life. But managing a career or a course is boring. He responds to projects on a case-by-case basis: “It’s a very sincere, instinctive feeling. There is no calculation in there. I never did things by calculation, never.

What has been a constant is the lively tempo of his performances, which one could see running to Parisian rhythms. When his on-screen energy is contained and channeled, he is precise and proper; but it often threatens to overflow into something jittery and irregular. He’s a delight in the 2018 dark crime comedy Fleuve Noir, as a temperamental French teacher with big literary ambitions, trying to outsmart Vincent Cassel’s detective but always flirting with disaster.

Even as Duris ages, gravity isn’t his natural mode, he admits. “I have problems when I’m asked to play authority figures. It’s not something I’m comfortable with. That kind of cold, quiet authority that some people can project very well – I have to work on it. Even as a father of two sons in real life, his on-screen fathers are no longer overbearing: “Fathers have changed these days. So I can play modern better. Mine are either a little eccentric or just as crazy as the kids.

Duris: “I've always played the clown.
“I always played the clown”… Duris. Photography: Marc Piasecki/WireImage

He never lost his natural anti-authoritarianism, he says. This comes into play when I ask him if he admires Jobs or other visionaries of our time: “Anyone with too much power makes me suspect. Someone like that today at the head of a company or an empire can’t be impeccable, so I don’t take much inspiration from that. Staying on the side of the poets, he was well cast as Vernon Subutex, the wasteful and hardcore alternative culture record dealer on a Parisian odyssey in the recent TV adaptation of Virginie Despentes’ best-selling novels.

Perhaps this allergy to authority figures is why Duris remains reluctant to direct — even if he’s happy to play a director, as in Michel Hazanavicius’ recent meta-zomcom Final Cut. He just couldn’t find the “life or death” topic that would justify devoting all his time to it. “It has to be essential and visceral,” he explains. “And I already communicate that way through illustration. When I finish a film, I like to draw by myself and I manage to communicate certain things. It’s more natural for me.

So for now, Duris is still doodling, keeping him free on screen. Then come two films of the Three Musketeers with Bourboulon, in which the actor is unleashed with Cassel and Pio Marmaï. Duris is Aramis, the conflicted seducer and aspirant to the stuff: “Either he does one thing and regrets it, or he does the other and regrets it.” It looks like a fun paradox to navigate freehand. There is no doubt that it will be done brilliantly, a bit like in the D’Artagnan era, when he was the ingenue of the Parisian boulevards: “I have always played the clown, I have always made people laugh. I knew the camera was not going to be a problem.

Eiffel comes out on August 12.

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