Eden Dir. Mia Hansen-Love

[Broad Green; 2014]

Styles: music, scene biopic
Others: Goodbye First Love, Saint Laurent

There’s something perpetually validating and self-defeating about the way director Mia Hansen-Love and co-screenwriter Sven Hansen-Love treat Eden, their pseudo-epic spanning the first generation of French garage music. The film follows Paul (Félix de Givry), a DJ modeled after Sven, who begins the film as a rave scenester, evolves into a respected and fitfully successful performer, and peters out along with the culture’s enthusiasm for the niche that birthed the techno behemoths Daft Punk. Eden’s beats are familiar — romances bloom, wilt, and grow again; drugs and money provoke alternately lingering and urgent anxieties; some friends thrive, others die — but the Hansen-Loves depict them in a thoroughly minor key. It’s a strategy that seems utterly appropriate for a movie about an also-ran in a musical niche that remains influential, if somewhat ephemeral. Eden is thoroughgoing in its passivity, but that modesty turns out to be one of its most productive assets.

The film begins in a pre-dawn darkness, as a swarm of teenagers wanders through some woods in a Spielbergian fog. Hansen-Love and cinematographer Denis Lenoir build a scene in snippets of conversation and blips of available light (a sliver of the moon, the tip of a lit cigarette). The gangly figure we’ll come to know as Paul passes out in the woods, tripping. When we get to the party that’s brought he and his friends together, it’s already last night’s party, and this mild-mannered disruption of convention persists over the next two hours. Daft Punk reveal “Da Funk” at a modest house show, looking suspect and uncomfortable; the duo, played by Vincent Lacoste and Arnaud Azoulay, flit in and out of the film, becoming bigger than it and returning to pay it and their scene respect. (Eden’s best running joke is that no one outside the scene knows what the duo look like: They’re regularly shut out of DJ nights.) Meanwhile, Paul puts in some off-screen work to become, with his friend Stan (Hugo Conzelmann), part of a respected duo drawn to R&B inflected beats from Detroit. A small network of friends and lovers are privy to their rise and subsequent languishing, including the iron-willed Louise (Pauline Etienne), who eventually grows out of the incestuous nightlife, and the hypochondriac/Showgirls fanatic Arnaud (Vincent Macaigne), who probably never will.

There are highs and lows to this group’s trajectory. Paul and Stan make it to the stage of a courtyard gig at MoMA PS1, but an artist friend (Roman Kolinka) commits suicide. Paul has a long-running coke habit, and takes a series of alternately promising and unappealing lovers (including Greta Gerwig, whose part as an aspiring writer is tactlessly scripted). Hansen-Love is keenly aware that she’s circling well-worn territory, and works hard to build a timeline that feels both lived-in and impressionistic. The film’s assemblage of scenes is less a scrapbook or highlight reel than a chain of recollections, the sorts of tossed-off moments one recalls when a friend’s name pops into mind. (With this spirit, Eden would make a fine double-feature with Bertrand Bonello’s recent Saint Laurent, another lumpy yet stylistically exquisite document of a generation in French culture.) Even the film’s club scenes succumb to this kind of sensory distraction. Like Michael Mann in Miami Vice or Paul Verhoeven in Basic Instinct, she follows her actors into nightclubs with a tremendous sense of purpose, but then she pauses to let the music overtake us. As hordes of French dancers sing English lyrics promoting freedom and social justice, the film blissfully taps into the elusive promise of its title, giving a gentle but pointed socio-political dimension to the proceedings.

By its final forty-five minutes or so, though, Eden is mostly about growing up, or Paul’s dawning realization that he never really got around to it. His DJ nights become, or are just revealed to be a hassle, a constant haggling over profit-sharing or negotiation with guest performers. Paul has entered his 30s and all he’s gained is a thin beard and the escalating discontent of his mother (Arsinée Khanjian), who can’t forgive him for giving up on thesis work in literature. Meanwhile, in a swanky cocktail bar, a female DJ plays a new Daft Punk ballad off her laptop, more intent on setting a mood than in getting anyone on their feet. Paul’s story is one of a brief rise followed by a long plateau. He is one of the least dynamic characters in Eden — only his partner comes off as more of a cipher — and de Givry doesn’t shy away from his character’s lack of urgency. His is a performance built from a loping gait and a series of half-smiles, and a set of small gestures films usually lack the patience for: Paul clasps the strap of his messenger back like others would put their hands in their pockets; when, performing, he puts a fist up in the air, the movement seems willing but unnatural, part of the job of inspiring a crowd. In his work and in his romance, Paul seems kind of gnomic and aloof, ever-capable but never quite comfortable. De Givry nails this alchemy, and whether Eden works largely depends on whether one recognizes Paul or finds him frustratingly hollow and reactive. Hansen-Love trusts, maybe a little too much, that most of us will find a kindred spirit in Paul, whose life is transformed by the euphoric shared experiences of his geeky, private passions.

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