Film of the Week: Eden
“Living at night isn’t helping my complexion,” lamented Pere Ubu back in 1976. But whatever other ill effects the life nocturnal might have on the characters in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden, their complexions don’t seem to suffer. Hansen-Løve’s night people all display that glow that seems particularly to attach to that strain of flaming youth that sees itself as living in a mythical âge d’or. We could be talking about the youth of the Roaring Twenties, or the young radicals of Sixties Paris—in this case, it happens to be the club crowd who were in on the boom of a new French dance scene in the 1990s and of a house music style that came to be known as “French touch.”
It’s not a term that Eden actually uses, but think of MHL’s films to date, and they do seem to embody a certain “French touch.” These are considered, muted, intimate studies that focus on youth and specifically on young women—notably in All Is Forgiven (07) and Goodbye First Love (11)—and that feel quintessentially French in that they often seem to inhabit a rarefied, indeed privileged sphere, an eternal bohemian Saint-Germain of the mind in which elegant, sensitive young intellectuals and eternal students learn with contemplative dignity to manage their quietly troubled emotions. It’s the kind of cinema that would be easy to caricature, if not for its grace and rigorous intelligence—and Father of My Childen (09) is certainly one of the most levelheaded demystifications ever of the messy business of independent film production.
Notwithstanding the first half of Father, about the travails of an over-stretched producer, Eden is MHL’s most male-centered film, not least because it is co-written with her brother Sven Hansen-Løve, and essentially tells his story from his point of view. Sven was first a clubber, then a DJ involved in the French house music boom that produced such internationally famed names as Justice, Cassius, Étienne de Crécy, Mr. Oizo (these days better known as transatlantic oddball director Quentin Dupieux), and, most famously, Daft Punk. The latter are the subject of a priceless running gag in Eden: the duo are first seen as a weedy-looking teenage duo prone to muttering conspiratorially into each other’s ears; identified as Thomas and Guy-Man (and played by Vincent Lacoste and Arnaud Azoulay), they are apparently destined for great things (“They make sounds all night with weird machines,” someone explains, “straight out of Happy Days with a techno twist”). The pair go from strength to strength throughout the film; the scene in which they play their early track “Da Funk” at a party is one of Eden’s Eureka moments. But, however successful they become, they still have trouble getting into clubs on the guest list: without their robo-helmets, no one knows who these badly dressed dorks are.
But Daft Punk are marginal players in Eden. The boy who never has any trouble getting in anywhere, and whose modest rise-and-fall story this is, is Sven’s alter ego Paul (saturnine newcomer Félix de Givry), a young middle-class Parisian music fan. Early on, he and his friend Stan (Hugo Conzelmann) chat in a club with another house enthusiast who runs a fanzine called Eden, which really existed; they’re into garage music, they explain, because this particular style, with its emphasis on impassioned vocal performances, combines “the robotic aspect of electronic house with the warmth of soul.” “Very well put,” says the fanzine guy. “You sound like future DJs.” Suffice it to say that Eden, whose director once did a stint writing for Cahiers du Cinéma, has a timeless ring in that it feels rather like a film about French cinephile youth that’s been transposed into the music world: this earnest duo could just as well be enthusing in the mid-Fifties about their favorite Robert Siodmak films (“Very well put, you sound like future auteurs—down with le cinéma de papa!”).
Eden follows Paul and his circle on a journey through the glories and sorrows of the club scene, and what a long disjointed journey it is; it starts in 1992, abruptly jumping three years, then another four, later whisking us through 2003 to 2006 in a single caption. The film’s time scheme has the same dazed elasticity that you might experience in a single night’s clubbing, with or without the right drugs which would explain why Paul looks so dazed and depleted when he finally emerges from his loved-up tunnel of love in 2013 (by which time the clubs, long since thoroughly commercialized, are ringing to a track off Daft Punk’s internationally chart-topping Random Access Memories album).
Some of the transitions are odd: it takes Paul and Stan, who never really seems a significant part of the picture, three years to come up with the name Cheers for their DJ duo (the banner that Sven Løve, as he was known, DJ’d under). Characters come and go with little obvious dramatic logic, or rather, following the fluid contingencies of real life: it feels as if we’re reading a several-thousand-page novel from which reams of text have been torn at random. Parts of the action focus on Paul’s friend Cyril (Roman Kolinka), a moody, troubled artist who has an ambivalent attitude to his club life. We see him having a crisis and pulling away from his friends; the last we hear of him is that he’s come to a sad end, but this crisis has happened off-screen, and the others are left to morosely contemplate it. Many of the discontinuities involve Paul’s love life. Early on, he’s involved with Julia, an American aspiring writer living in Paris, played by Greta Gerwig—more awkward than you’ve ever seen her, partly because of her clunky English dialogue (“Oh no! My super-hip schoolboy!”). Then Julia goes home, and Paul is playing cat-and-mouse with an assertive young theology student, Louise (Pauline Etienne); he thought only future nuns studied theology, he says, and she replies that maybe she will become a nun, a nice in-joke about the role that made Etienne’s name, the lead in Diderot adaptation The Nun (13). It should be said that Etienne’s Louise, the latest of MHL’s child-women undergoing the passage into adulthood, is by far the most vital and compelling presence here, de Givry a little too solipsistically mopey to focus one’s interest.
Louise enters the picture, drops out of it, drops back in again; Paul visits Julia, now pregnant and living in New York with her American boyfriend (who else but European art cinema’s favorite have-passport-will-travel guy Brady Corbet?). Then Paul takes up with a clubber, Yasmin (Golshifteh Farahani), who’s said to have a Jekyll and Hyde personality, but who shows so little of her dark side that she even wins the approval of Paul’s ever-disapproving mother (a very funny and affecting Arsinée Khanjian). And every now and then, the passing of time is marked by Louise turning up again, hair changing radically each time.
In fact, Etienne’s hair changes more than anything else in the film—whether it’s Paul’s moody, solemn demeanor (you’d never have him down as a hedonist), or the music itself. The latter stays fairly stable because Paul and Stan vehemently stick to their passion for garage, even when musical fashions change: an ominous turning point comes when a revenue-minded club proprietor urges them to widen their repertoire, prefacing his comments with, “David Guetta’s not your thing, I understand…”
That character might be the clubland counterpart to the financiers and producers whom you can imagine shaking their heads over Hansen-Løve’s script, arguing that Eden couldn’t possibly work as a film: there’s no continuity, no obvious narrative drive, too many characters who come and go, the protagonist is oddly inert, just drifting through events… Yet all those things are, of course, what makes Eden so seductive as a film—as well as so true to the contingencies of life, especially life spent in a sort of parallel after-dark counterculture. One of the most famous end lines in French literature is from Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, in which hero Frédéric, whose romantic self-involvement has caused him to miss out on the historical turmoil of his time, looks back and muses: “That was the best thing we ever had.” Similarly, Paul, caught up in the wild whirl of the scene he loves, ends up crashing to terra firma, having blown all his money and missed out on the outside world and on a great deal of daylight. Yet the whole seemingly inchoate flurry of his last 21 years has been the dream that the film narrates, following an appropriately free-flowing dream logic. And when you focus on one character’s intense, sealed-in experience, it makes sense that other people’s lives happen offstage, in an abrupt, fragmentary fashion—that Louise, for example, suddenly reappears with two children and a partner, then turns up later with the partner banished for good.
There’s only one actual hallucination in the film, and it’s an awful misjudgment: a cartoon bird flying through woods, evoking one character’s E-fueled rapture. But the opening sequence, based around a canal boat rave and the next morning’s trudge back through woods, is sublimely atmospheric. And sometimes Hansen-Løve and DP Denis Lenoir will just latch onto an unknown figure and follow them, like the young woman with heavy ringlets who suddenly becomes the focus of attention as she navigates a dance floor—the camera falling for her just as people, at the height of the ecstasy era, would profess unconditional love for complete strangers at clubs.
There’s something irresistible about the way that Eden fuses the dreamlike (which largely emerges from its flow) and the real, often embodied by cameos by house cult names such as American singers Arnold Jarvis and La India, who fly to Paris to do PAs for Cheers, or Chicago DJ Terry Hunter, encountered on Paul’s U.S. jaunt (a longish, euphoric section which must have set the film’s budget rocketing).
Even if you don’t care for, or know much about, Nineties house music, the Hansen-Løves’ collaboration evokes a sense of musical euphoria that I defy you to remain unmoved by—not least in the end credits sequence in which, long after the idyll has crumbled, we flash back to Paul and Louise in their childlike prime dancing to C. Dock’s exuberant “Happy Song.” Throughout, brief blasts of Frankie Knuckles, Joe Smooth et al have an irresistible effect (although small blasts obviously isn’t the point with this music—maybe there’s an eight-hour DJ’s cut of Eden, with tracks played full-length).
Eden in no way resembles the sort of dance-scene movie normally made in the U.S. or Britain; it’s not about music being aspirational, or an escape from the pressures of working-class life. In fact, for all the late nights and all the coke ingested, you don’t even feel that Eden is much about hedonism. There’s something oddly studious about the scene it depicts, which also seems to be very white and bourgeois: apart from Yasmin and the odd briefly glimpsed mixed-race background figure, everyone here is white and bourgeois except for its handful of African-American guest stars. In most ways, Eden is a quintessentially Parisian film about French youth, about a briefly vivid flare-up of passionate community, about a lost utopia. Paul and company could be, as I said, young French movie buffs in any era—and that MHL can’t get away from her own cinephilia is shown by a nice comic interlude in which scenester Arnaud (the always magnetic raspy-voiced jester Vincent Macaigne) tries to persuade his friends that Showgirls is a chef d’oeuvre (“I’ve shown it to you three times and you still don’t get it!”).
Equally, we could be watching young French student radicals of the Sixties or Seventies. And indeed, Eden, in its all discontinuous fluidity, feels very much like a night-life pendant to Something in the Air (12), the film about the post-’68 generation by MHL’s partner Olivier Assayas (and in which de Givry and Conzelmann acted). While it’s invidious to compare a female director’s work to that of her spouse, it’s plausible that two filmmakers who live and have worked together (she has acted in his films) may find styles and preoccupations rubbing off on each other, or separately making films that would be a dream double-bill; this is certainly the only MHL film that feels remotely like an Assayas one, and it’s certainly different from the pared-down precision of her other, more vignette-like works.
There are two literary references at the end. One is a Robert Creeley poem read in English by a new female friend of Paul’s (her face superimposed on screen), in which the key term I suppose, is “rhythm”; it feels like an overt and jarring piece of rhetoric on which to end. The other is a brief reference to Chilean writer Roberto Bolanõ, which seems altogether more pertinent: if ever a writer was inclined to create “lost generation” portraits, and at considerable, free-form length, it was Bolaño. And as with some of his works, it’s the very exuberance and unevenness of Eden that makes this film so transfixing. It made me care about a scene I barely knew about at the time, and about a music that’s often bored me; but Eden will, I think, make total outsiders to its planet feel involved and enthralled. It’s a hypnotic you-had-to-be-there movie that flows and drifts like a perfect night’s house mix—right down to the ensuing comedown in the cold light of day.