The fourth feature-length film by French director and screenwriter Mia Hansen-Løve is less a celebration of the church of dance – though it is at times a paean to clubbing and its inherent vices, particularly in the first of its two parts – and more a bittersweet tale about moderate success, moderate failure, gain and loss, spanning a period of twenty years and focusing on the life and loves of (fictional) DJ and producer Paul Vallée (Félix de Givry). With its emphasis on the Parisian electronic music scene of the 1990s and early 2000s the subject matter of Eden may well alienate some cinemagoers, but those willing to take the plunge will find a well-scripted, intelligently-structured film that brings to mind both the cool dreaminess of Sofia Coppola and – through the use of several non-professional actors and the general focus on twenty-somethings – the work of Éric Rohmer.
Co-written by Hansen-Løve with her brother Sven, and drawing on Sven’s experience as a successful Paris-based DJ and producer, Eden traces Paul’s life from 1992 to the present day. This period of twenty-plus years is divided into two parts (subtitled ‘Paradise Garage’ and ‘Lost In Music’), the first much lighter than the second, building to a crescendo of sorts in the middle (when Paul’s career hits a peak and he’s in a long-term relationship with Louise (Pauline Étienne)). Each half consists of smaller segments that generally cover a year or two at most, and the structure smartly brings to mind the sets played by more thoughtful DJs, the kind that Paul’s hero Larry Levan was famous for creating in New York in the 1980s. It’s also possible to see Eden as a whole as a simplified version of the effects of ecstasy during a night out: what we have here is wave after wave of euphoria, though not without blips, followed by the comedown.
Occasionally the narrative skips forward in time à la Boyhood – at one point four years pass by in the blink of an eye – often with no explanation of Paul’s break-ups or the beginnings of his love affairs, though without the luxury of a long shooting schedule like the one enjoyed by Richard Linklater the passing of time is depicted by more common visual signifiers: slight shifts in haircuts and trends, for example, and through changes in technology. Mobile phones and smartphones work their way in, but more interestingly the DJs’s tool of choice changes from turntables to CD mixers to the iMac, analogue slowly giving way to digital. Change is gradual and years pass by in a blur.
‘Paradise Garage’ traces Paul’s rise within the French touch house scene that became prominent during the mid-1990s. When we first see him it’s at the end of a party taking place inside an old submarine, where he’s coming down from ecstasy and bashfully asking the DJ about a certain track he played (‘The Whistle Song’ by Frankie Knuckles, which perfectly sums up Eden‘s blend of happiness and sadness). He and artist pal Cyril (Roman Kolinka) fall in love with this style of music – garage house born of disco and emanating from New York and Chicago – and Paul forms a musical partnership with fellow DJ, producer and friend Stan (Hugo Conzelmann), eventually hosting their own club nights. Two more members of the same scene, Thomas (Vincent Lacoste) and Guy-Man (Arnaud Azoulay), find fame as Daft Punk; there’s a charming scene here showing the pair nervously dropping breakthrough single Da Funk for the first time at a New Year’s Eve party, and a couple of amusing jokes based around their on-stage appearance, though wisely Hansen-Løve allows them to disappear from the story as their international profile rises. There are subtle nods to other key figures – a sticker for Étienne De Crecy’s landmark Super Discount album, for example, or a Cassius t-shirt – that simply serve as knowing winks for watching nerds.
The level of Paul and Stan’s success is marked throughout by the size of the crowds they attract: at first the parties are friendly and intimate, only for those ‘in the know’, but the crowds swell and the clubs get bigger, the peak being a residency at MoMA’s PS1 in New York. In ‘Lost In Music’, the second half of the film, things take a turn for the worse. Larger venues mean that Paul and Stan inherit more problems, such as insensitive promoters and diva antics from American singers who are flown over to deliver PAs, while Paul’s lack of business acumen means that he fails to capitalise on his fleeting popularity. His tastes remain constant while the music he makes and plays becomes less fashionable, and he is left floundering in the slipstream of newer trends as we move into the mid-noughties. By the end of the decade he has resorted to performing a series of uninspiring paying gigs where there is little respect for his craft, such as a private party in Morocco that sees his set interrupted by local musicians and a depressing-looking New Year shindig on a near-empty boat, during which we discover that Stan has moved on and now has a partner and baby (we can presume that’s also what has happened to most of the early-90s clubbers seen fervently dancing and singing in the first half). Meanwhile the coke habit Paul develops in the 1990s gets worse, the debts become larger, and his decision to quit university to focus on music seems to have backfired, ultimately; it looks like a smart move at times in Eden, but with huge debts and no career in his mid-30s Paul cuts a desultory lone figure.
His inability to change is underlined by his various relationships, and the way in which his ex-partners manage to move on with their lives while he stays in the same flat, playing the same kind of music and gradually becoming worn out by working at night. When he revisits first love Julia, an American writer played by Greta Gerwig, she has seemingly found stability back home in New York and is pregnant. Louise, with whom he shares the most obvious chemistry and strongest bond, also moves on quickly after her years with Paul; one minute she leaves him, the next (in cinematic terms at least) she has had two kids with another man, even though she fails to find lasting happiness in the coastal town of Hossegor and eventually returns to Paris. Others come and go and, as in real life, when they’re gone they’re gone; Laura Smet’s celeb-obsessed party girl Margot seems like a bad bet from the off and Golshifteh Farahani’s upbeat Yasmin disappears following a skip forward in time. Hansen-Løve gives you just enough sense of each of these female characters to make such a parting of the ways seem logical, and occasionally inevitable: it’s not a surprise that Yasmin has left when we find a ‘new’ Paul, one who has kicked his coke problem and has stopped working as a DJ, even though she is shown in a sympathetic light before the narrative moves on.
Given that the main character appears to be a relatively nice guy it’s natural to want to see some light at the end of the tunnel when his life turns sour, or to at least see him with the same person when we jump forward in time, but Hansen-Løve smartly avoids a saccharine ending with Louise and skilfully incorporates a few threads that hint at a different future, which feels wholly in keeping with the rhythm she has established up to that point. Paul enrolls in an evening writing course and meets Estelle (Olivia Ross), while there is a sense that he is finally taking action with regard to his finances and he also manages to move on from the death of a friend several years earlier. At the end Estelle is super-imposed on screen as Paul reads Robert Creeley’s poem The Rhythm, a fittingly melancholic full stop to this snapshot of a 20-year period that has seen such dedication to music, but also a work that seems to sum up Paul’s place in the world.
Eden is a finely-constructed and engaging film, and one of my favourites of 2015 to date; that’s partly due to its many obvious qualities – with regard to the script, the use of music, the acting and the accuracy of the clubbing scenes (the best since Yolande Zauberman’s 1996 film Clubbed To Death, released when the 90’s French house scene was in its prime) – but I also regard it so highly because it left me feeling warmly nostalgic about my own twenties and the places I lived in or visited (though I never had the missionary zeal of the main male characters in this piece, and thankfully no equivalent drug problem). Eden is an accurate, heartfelt, intelligent and absorbing picture, while de Givry’s central performance is both understated and realistic; he is well-supported by the rest of the cast.
Directed by: Mia Hansen-Løve.
Written by: Mia Hansen-Løve, Sven Hansen-Løve.
Starring: Félix de Givry, Pauline Etienne, Vincent Macaigne, Roman Kolinka, Hugo Conzelmann, Zita Hanrot, Vincent Lacoste, Greta Gerwig, Arnaud Azoulsay, Golshifteh Farahani, Laura Smet.
Cinematography: Denis Lenoir.
Editing: Marion Monnier.
Running Time: 130 minutes.