Eden is a low-key film about a high-energy musical genre, but its languid pace and episodic storytelling turn out to be entrancing rather than enervating. Appropriately, for a film tracking a French DJ’s rise and descent, it is sometimes more useful to pay attention to the beats and lyrics on the soundtrack than the dialogue in the screenplay. That the prose doesn’t rise to the level of the pulsating house music is a tad disappointing, considering that the story is loosely autobiographical: director Mia Hansen-Løve’s brother, Sven, was a disc jockey for two decades.
Sven also co-wrote the drama, which spans more than 20 years, beginning in November 1992. Eden focuses on Paul (newcomer Félix de Givry), a musician in the garage house subgenre trying to catch his big break in his hometown of Paris. One half of a musical duo named Cheers, he yearns to find an audience (or at least a niche) in the booming local electronic music scene. (The other half, Hugo Conzelmann’s Stan, is frequently ignored throughout the story and disappears for large sections.)
Narratively, Eden doesn’t stray too far from the conventions of a story set in and around the music industry. As the century turns, Paul moves from crushed cocaine powder to crushing debt, while he keeps jumping from bedroom to bedroom. Structurally, Hansen-Løve’s film is atypical. It is divided into two halves: the first, “Paradise Garage,” keeps the screen time fairly equal between the throbbing rush of club life in Paris with Paul’s personal life, while the second, “Lost in Music,” throttles ahead toward personal problems near the present day and puts the score on the backburner. The first half is a dizzying experience, filled with chapters of whirlwind romances and the vigor of youth. Meanwhile, the second half is a gloomy daze, as Paul tries to figure out how to keep himself both stable and inspired.
The drama tracks the protagonist’s journey through music. Not only does Paul’s popularity reflect the shifting cultural of the past 20 years, but the sound of the music itself – playful and thrilling at points, distant and monotonous in others – becomes a mirror for Paul’s mindset. The camerawork also informs the protagonist’s sense of being. The film opens on a dim street in the early morning hours just after a rave: before any light appears in the sky, Paul saunters down the street, getting lost in the fog. Hansen-Løve focuses on the lack of exact form in moments like these, as well as early club-set scenes, to project Paul as a young man that is hard to discern from the masses. Cinematographer Denis Lenoir, a frequent collaborator with Olivier Assayas, makes no concessions for clear lighting in the early nightclub sequence; there, when the lights go down, everything blends together.
While music is prominent throughout the drama, there is also an emphasis on several of Paul’s relationships. In his late teens, he falls for another wannabe writer, Julia, played by Greta Gerwig. When Julia moves to New York, he moves on to a young music connoisseur, Louise (Pauline Etienne). Both Gerwig and Etienne emote more than de Givry, who lets both the dazzle and the gloom of the music inform a large part of his performance. In one scene, the lyrics from Daft Punk’s “Within” serve as a perfect encapsulation of Paul’s despair. (“Many rooms to explore but the doors look the same,” the vocals purr robotically.) However, the soundtrack is too often more evocative than the screenplay.
Ultimately, Eden is more transfixed on mood and theme than character. If Paul is a variation of Sven, he still only feels half-formed, a character more defined by the apexes and nadirs of artistic success he reaches than any sort of creative process. We learn of his intentions to be a writer and Cheers’ musical approach to blend the sounds of the New York-based garage scene with a more pop-friendly electronic sound; unfortunately, we learn little about why Paul wants to pursue these creative peaks and how he eventually wades into the pool of fame and fleeting fortune.
Hansen-Løve’s film, at 131 minutes, could have easily sacrificed the moments of club chaos and routine relationships for a more insightful look into Paul’s musical journey. The character only becomes compelling in the final third, after the story jumps into the “Lost in Music” chapter and Paul has to reconcile with some bad deals and disappearing crowds. It is here when one of the director’s key creative choices – not aging de Givry much beyond his baby-faced teen years – begins to make more sense. Paul looks almost the same in the late 2000s as in the early 1990s, indicating that he still has some growing up to do. Music is Paul’s fountain of youth: as one character tells him in part two, “It’s crazy that you haven’t changed.”
The creative decision to keep Paul’s look static throughout the years creates a sense of defeat and longing in the last half, as he harkens back to long nights of dizziness and dancing. Eden improves as it approaches its melancholy final third, as the story of a musical scene refines its focus into one of personal reflection. What begins as a scenic and sometimes dull biography transforms into an ultimately poignant trip.
Eden is an inconsistent look at an artist’s musical journey, although one that eventually finds its rhythm and thematic focus.