Balanced between dark, pulsating night clubs and cramped, bland apartments, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden manages to both embrace and elide expectations: yes, there’s sex and drugs and partying, but rarely in the ways films about music tend to show them. This is mainly a result of Hansen-Løve’s leading man Paul, played by Félix de Givry. He’s a lithe, cat-like figure, comfortably gliding through the burgeoning dance scene like it’s his childhood bedroom, more content than enraptured. While the setting might hint at something energetic, this is a fairly mellow, contemplative film.
Although Eden is a semi-auto-biographical story based on Mia Hansen-Løve’s co-writer and brother Sven’s experience as a DJ in the early 90s, there is no mythologizing here. There are no bombastic sequences of Paul creating music, no montages of a genius in action to illustrate his talent; in fact, we rarely see Paul create at all. Paul has neither the genius of his friends Daft Punk nor the ambition to become financially successful. Paul is as much a consumer of music as a producer; perhaps he only produces to consume more of what he likes to hear, as few other Parisians were working in garage house.
This is established in the film’s counter-intuitive opening sequence. It begins on a group of young people heading towards a rave in a refurbished submarine. As they near, an off-screen voice offers them drugs and a pulsing bass can be heard emanating from the ship. In silhouette, one of the kids climbs up the sub’s bridge. He has to make way for someone exiting; rather than descending into the party, the camera follows this emerging character, Paul, as he walks off into a surrounding park. The music is fades away and Paul falls asleep against a tree. When he awakes, he looks to the sky and sees a colorful cartoon bird strobing through the sky. Because of the drug reference, it seems like we are in store for yet another hallucinogenic drug movie. Paul returns to the boat (and dying party) and walks towards the DJ. Shyly, he asks him about a song he played earlier in the night, one that was “sort of happy, with a gentle melody.” As the DJ finds the song and puts it on, a playful flute overwhelms the soundtrack and the camera cuts to a smiling Paul. It sounds like birds.
These glimpses at Paul’s interiority are brief and fleeting. His ambition never moves beyond the individual parties, and as a result, he stays in a strange stasis. The film could be read as a series of missed opportunities for Paul, if it ever seemed he was interested in them in the first place. The movie takes place over two decades, but aside from slight stubble, Paul never seems to age. As Hansen-Løve elides through time, sometimes a year, sometimes three, Paul stays the same, while the world around him moves on or fades away: friends die or disappear, ex-girlfriends start families, thesis advisors let him go, and Daft Punk get famous. Even the bank manager who gives Paul a break through his constant financial problems is replaced by a straight-laced enforcer who finally lays down the law.
Paul’s demeanor is mimicked in the rave scenes. They never descend into the sweaty, sexy dance orgy you would expect. Rather, they are beautiful, affective experiences. Hansen-Løve and her cinematographer Denis Lenoir alternate between long, snaky tracking shots through crowds of party-goers and wide overhead shots from the DJ’s perspective. While the rest of the film is shot fairly conservatively, these sequences often take an impressionistic turn, as dancers meld together in the darkness and the neon lights of the clubs take over. Like the music being played, these sequences follow a general rhythm, broken up by subtle variations of location, character, and sound.
The achievement of Hansen-Løve is that she manages to reveal Paul’s development through means other than plotting. The repetition of the dance scenes provides one insight. For a while, they are incredibly exciting sequences, but in their repetition, they become rote and bland. In certain ways, they even become mildly comedic (the way we keep repeating the line of guests trying to convince security they are on the VIP list). The other characters seem to have realized this dissipating return, which is why they often disappear through the leaps in time. Only Paul remains, and he remains as the settings become less and less exciting until he’s playing for a handful of people in the rain. In this sequence, near the film’s end, Paul seems to finally realize his grand mistake; the music still brings him joy, but he recognizes that joy is nearly all it brings him.