Mia Hansen-Løve’s new film, Eden, wonderfully captures the experience of being caught up in the idyllic state of a dance song, and yet it’s also ultimately ambivalent toward the possibility of remaining in a state of musical innocence. Its two halves—“Paradise Garage” and “Lost in the Music”—portray the origins and then diffusion of the French house scene and what might happen to someone who fails to ever transcend it. Rather than tracing a clear, historical narrative of the musical movement, Eden follows an aspiring DJ, Paul (Félix De Givry)—a fictionalized version of Hansen-Løve’s brother, Sven, who was himself a DJ during the period depicted and who co-wrote the screenplay with his sister—offering a subjective and meandering account of Paul’s own personal travails and minor successes, in which “garage house” plays a key role.
Personally, the film resonates with me because of my own history as a DJ. While I no longer keep a steady gig, I have occasionally done a fill-in set at a local bar. The seminal French house band, Daft Punk, was an important high school discovery for me. Their sound was exciting and their videos, directed by Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, were daring and unique. So, I have a personal, emotional connection to the subject matter of the film. Paul’s story, in a slightly different world, could have been my story. But it’s not, and thank God.
While the Daft Punk duo, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, aren’t the focus of Eden, they are a presence and shape how we view Paul: as his old friends ascend to superstardom, he struggles to pay the bills and maintain meaningful relationships. Paul’s girlfriends come and go—one American girlfriend is played by Greta Gerwig—as he snorts loads of cocaine and plans parties for his long-running DJ night, Cheers. But, much as the girls refuse to stay by his side, so do musical trends. Garage house doesn’t draw the same crowds in the late-naughts that they did in the late-nineties. Still, Paul keeps on going. Structurally, the repetitive ebbs and flows of the house songs are analogous to the cycles of Paul’s existence. Eventually something is going to give.
Hansen-Løve has a gift for constructing scenes that capture ordinary moments, never artificially heightening the emotional resonance of particular scenes. The film has a wonderfully naturalistic sense of pacing. The significance of the various moments isn’t apparent until moments are past. Likewise, people fail to recognize or register the importance of what is in front of them. A repeated gag in which the club bouncers don’t let in Thomas and Guy-Man, failing to recognize the Daft Punk stars without their robot masks, is echoed in how Paul fails to see the reality of his situation.
Thus, Eden is a film that is structured as much around what is elided as what is stated: on a trip to New York circa late-2001 9/11 is never mentioned, at a moment when its impact would have been inescapable. The film also has a timelessness to it that could be construed as sloppy anachronism: for instance, background characters use smartphones when they wouldn’t have been available. Such conspicuous absences and temporal flatness says as much about Paul’s experience of the world as anything else. Likewise, the film never explicitly mentions how Thomas and Guy-Man go from outsiders to global superstars long after French house’s visceral moment was past, but it colours our view of what is possible in the genre.
Eden’s limitations as a film are as much Paul’s limitations as a person; when it fails to engage it is often because Paul does, though De Givry gives a great performance reminding me of the best New Wave leading men, such as Jean-Pierre Léaud. I can see my admiration for the film growing in time. I’m aware my positive reaction is entrenched as much in my affection for the music of the film as in anything else. Like the best cautionary tales, Eden drew me in; however, instead of going out with a blaze of glory, it runs out of steam in the end. After the dance club is closed and the buzz from the drugs and drinks wears off, you find yourself sitting in the rising sun of the morning wondering what it was all about. Perhaps a wholly appropriate ending.
7 out of 10
Directed by Mia Hansen-Løve; screenplay by Mia & Sven Hansen-Løve; starring Félix De Givry, Pauline Etienne, Vincent Macaigne, Greta Gerwig, Golshifteh Farahani, Laura Smet, Vincent Lacoste, Arsinée Khanjian.
Eden plays at the Toronto International Film Festival as part of the Special Presentations programme.