Eden

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Mia Hansen-Løve

Starring

Félix de Givry Pauline Etienne Vincent Macaigne

Anticipation.

Director Mia Hansen-Løve has yet to put a frame out of place.

Enjoyment.

Eden makes it four for four. A remarkable film which drums to its own beat.

In Retrospect.

As great as everything she’s made before, and possibly even a little better.

Mia Hansen-Løve’s extraordinary fourth feature is about the impossibility of beat-matching life and fashion.

Life demands we choose a path and walk it. How fast or hard or far we go is the magical variable. It’s the process of bristling against the stimuli of the world, taking in the influences of other people, negotiating the topography of fashion and politics and succumbing to the strange, magnetising lure of desire. It’s about being constantly prompted to question whether the path you’ve chosen was the correct one. And this isn’t us proclaiming from on high, merely second-guessing the intentions of the brilliant French director Mia Hansen-Løve, whose latest masterpiece, Eden, plays doleful existential ennui to a soundtrack of fluttering 120 bmp floor-fillers.

Her fourth feature opens on an unassuming, bright young man, Paul Vallée (Félix de Givry), as he emerges somewhat frazzled from a docked submarine at twilight – a fairy tale setup if ever there was one. He slips awkwardly through an overgrown glade, side-stepping the tingling, pan-European revellers as if he’s in possession of some miraculous piece of information on which he alone must contemplate. The vessel is an improvised rave venue, and the muffled musical siren call can be heard in the middle distance. Or, this could well be the background noise inside Paul’s own head. He props up against a tree, lights a cigarette and glances skyward. An animated bird loops through the canopy and, within an instant, is gone. This is Paul’s epiphany. It’s entirely unexplained and wholly beautiful, something only he sees and perhaps the kind of private oracle which sets lives in motion. The ensuing film is about Paul trying to prove to himself that what he saw was real.

Hansen-Løve’s previous three features were all ripped from raw personal experience, and they all in some way picked apart death, grief and the elusive possibility of renewal. She has said that these films – which include 2007’s Tout est pardonné, 2009’s Father of My Children and 2012’s Goodbye, First Love – form a loose trilogy. Where the first two dealt with death in a more literal guise, Goodbye, First Love looked at the death of love, with an intense formative relationship being abruptly extinguished, though its warm embers burn on in the mind of its hyper-sensitive heroine. Eden, which is directly inspired by the life of Hansen-Løve’s brother, Sven, who co-wrote the screenplay with her, assumes a near-identical dramatic arc to Goodbye, First Love, only replacing the central heterosexual romance with a love affair between a man and his music. And music, we discover, can be a harsh mistress.

Paul yearns to be a DJ, though he aims to retain a sense of musical purism – his playlists are formed entirely of early ’90s “French touch” garage music. Ascendent sub-genres interest him none, and his heart is given over to a sound which during a radio interview he defines as being the exact mid-point between the euphoric and the melancholic – a handy double-edged descriptor which also nails the gently vacillating tone of the film at large. Paul’s journey melds personal crisis, fleeting prosperity and alternative social history in a way that’s suggestive of one of Martin Scorsese’s era-bridging bildungsroman such as Goodfellas or Casino. Hansen-Løve, though, is less interested in explaining why things happen, and is more open to being tickled and surprised by random inertia. She offers no lessons in Eden, just observations, the narrative ellipses hold guard against didacticism. And this isn’t a way of shirking cinematic responsibility in what some might see as a search for pre-packaged profundity. Rich emotions are made manifest through minor details, and where Hansen-Løve’s intricate and intuitive construction mode might evade conspicuous payoffs, it’s the things that are not happening and the people who are not there that are often the most important.

History and the passing of time in Eden are presented as entirely experiential, and while the film does roughly adhere to a marketing synopsis which infers a musical biopic covering some 20 years of this specific “scene”, it’s much more than a series of carefully mounted Wiki-touchstones. This granular view of collective perception recalls the quietly revolutionary films of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, such as 1989’s A City of Sadness or 1993’s The Puppetmaster, both real stories told from imagined perspectives. A professed admirer of Hou, Hansen-Løve has herself produced a film about a single person passing through history, not about history itself – its contingent ructions are felt rather than seen. In terms of its countercultural subject matter, Eden is almost a Western remake of Hou’s 2001 film Millennium Mambo, itself smitten and inspired by the hypnotic qualities of house music and of lives lived by night. The heady power of nostalgia is wielded in a way which latches on to the import of feeling the moment, not recognising its significance: how it feels to listen to music; how it feels to play music to other people; how it feels to walk into a club; how it feels to be chasing a dream.

It’s not without its pop levity, mind you. Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter (aka Daft Punk) appear (played by actors) in an early house party scene, a small-scale lark which sees the pair shuffle awkwardly behind the decks then nonchalantly drop their wall-shaking single ’Da Funk’ to a rapturous response. (Paul is in the other room at the time.) It’s an amusing scene, and arguably Hansen-Løve’s only concession to this kind of romantic you-had-to-be-there mythologising, often the sole constituent of most Hollywood music bios. Otherwise, its music selections are a model of discernment and from-the-source insider knowledge. They are carefully placed over the action, but rarely beat-matched to it.

Eden is also fully attuned to the notion that we can’t help but gauge our own happiness against that of the people who surround us. Paul has a brief fling with an American author played by Greta Gerwig who flits back to New York from Paris one night leaving a Dear John on his doorstep. Years later, at the height of his success, Paul visits her while in the US for a DJing engagement at Brooklyn’s PS1. He sees her settled with a new partner (Brady Corbet, who seems to be on a mission to cameo in as many foreign language films as is humanly possible) and heavily pregnant. Whether Paul takes stock of this moment and sees it as a feasible life juncture for his own relationship with the one woman he really connects with, Louise (Pauline Etienne), is left open. Hansen-Løve could well have placed this scene here as a way to emphasise Paul’s impermeable connection to his chosen metier, that normalcy is not yet something he understands as being attainable.

The Biblical connotations of the title refer to Paul eventually renouncing the pleasure of music for the knowledge of survival. It’s an unbearably sad film, stern in its refusal to acquiesce to motivational banalities such as doing what you love or being the best you can be. The world shows no quarter to those unwilling to roll with its hard punches. As the market for “French touch” garage dwindles, so does Paul’s professional prospects. His staunch unwillingness to take stock and start anew see him left alone, with one agonising late twist seeing him discover an alternative, possibly more stable future which, at the crucial moment, he was deemed too immature to be offered.

It would be easy to come out of Eden feeling that you’ve just received a lesson in cautionary fatalism, being reminded that everything we hold dear will die in our arms. Life gives you lemons, you make lemonade, and then one day, the lemons expire. Yet everything hangs on the film’s very final moments, and at the lowest ebb, Hansen-Løve spectacularly turns things around with a Robert Creeley poem called ‘The Rhythm’ which alludes to life as a cyclical sequence of deaths and rebirths. Only as the screen finally fades are we assured that Paul really did see that bird.

Published 23 Jul 2015

Anticipation.

Director Mia Hansen-Løve has yet to put a frame out of place.

Enjoyment.

Eden makes it four for four. A remarkable film which drums to its own beat.

In Retrospect.

As great as everything she’s made before, and possibly even a little better.

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