For Luddites still unconvinced of the legitimacy of electronic dance music, as well as young fans ill informed of its long history, Mia Hansen-Love’s “Eden” would make for a wonderfully eye-opening anchor on a double bill with the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Though wholly different in tone, style and philosophy, this portrait of a struggling garage DJ as he navigates two decades in the French club scene is similarly sensitive in its evocation of the fleeting joys and simmering disappointments of the artistic life, and just as impeccable in its presentation of music. Admittedly a bit overlong, and simultaneously deepened and distanced by its director’s characteristic emotional reserve, this gorgeously photographed, gently poignant film should still attract plenty of arthouse attention both in France and the U.S.
Starting in 1992, “Eden” jumps right into the decade’s illicit rave scene, where parties were held not in ritzy bottle-service clubs, but rather in basement dives, warehouses and, as the film’s first scene depicts, even harbored submarines. It’s here that teenage literature student Paul (Felix de Givry) first encounters garage, the seminal strain of diva-infused dance music that slowly emanated across the globe from Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage in New York City.
Hansen-Love, who co-wrote the script along with her former-DJ brother Sven, zeroes in on the signature experiences of ’90s club life with expert precision: the struggle to find the venues, the promiscuous blending of styles and techniques that occurred on the decks, and the way lifelong partnerships and passions could be formed through chance encounters with fellow travelers.
Struck with the bug, Paul forms a DJ duo with the unassuming Stan (Hugo Conzelmann), and begins promoting his own parties. His circle of collaborators gradually widens to include depressive poster artist Cyril (Roman Kolinka), Falstaffian “Showgirls” enthusiast Arnaud (Vincent Macaigne), and all manner of hangers-on and girlfriends, the most significant being American expat Julia (a slightly awkward Greta Gerwig), who serves as Paul’s low-key muse, and spitfire Parisian scenester Louise (the excellent Pauline Etienne), who is all too eager to call him on his bullshit.
Meanwhile, two of Paul’s fellow mixers, Thomas and Guy-Man (Vincent Lacoste and Arnaud Azoulay), start to stage their own gigs under the Daft Punk moniker, with their T. Rex-gone-Kraftwerk single “Da Funk” blowing the French electronic scene wide open. Though the pic makes a somewhat too-cute running joke of the duo’s inability to get past nightclub doormen, who fail to recognize them without their masks, rarely is there a distracting “Forrest Gump” effect when the fictional Paul starts rubbing elbows with real-life stars. (Legendary house music figures La India and Tony Humphries also make cameos, as themselves.)
In a sense, “Eden” is perhaps the antithesis of a rise-and-fall narrative, as Paul makes his name as a DJ and nightlife promoter, attains a modest degree of local renown, plays some flashy gigs in New York, and then … stays right in that same comfortable niche for years. Paul keeps the records spinning steadily even as financial troubles start to mount, friends drift away, and his occasional cocaine use starts to become more than a casual indulgence. When he reconnects with Julia, now pregnant and long gone from the club scene, her intended compliment “it’s crazy that you haven’t changed” takes on a caustic tinge.
None of this is presented with the least bit of melodrama, however, and de Givry keeps his character’s mounting ennui close to the vest. (If he’s jealous of Daft Punk’s fame and fortune, he never lets it show.) The film begins to drag a bit in its second hour, as Paul’s late nights in the club become less an expression of Dionysian freedom and more an obligation; DJing becomes a job in every sense save for the reliable paydays. Yet it seems entirely possible that this is intentional on Hansen-Love’s part, as the audience begins to lose interest in Paul’s music dreams precisely as the romance begins to die for him as well. That’s how quite a few dreams end, after all, not with a whimper but a yawn.
Without overly stressing the period details, Hansen-Love cleverly maps out the passing of time through subtle fashion cues and the gradually increasing use of cell phones. Scenes set in the clubs have a hugely lived-in authenticity, with Denis Lenoir’s photography capturing the delicate interplay of neon light on glassware and gyrating bodies, and Hansen-Love is wonderfully attuned to the palpable electric currents that a perfectly mixed transition can send surging through a dance floor. Peeks behind the curtain at dance-track composition are similarly sharp, especially a scene where Paul agonizes over dozens of kick-drum sounds, comparing them variously to “rabbit farts” and “the invasion of Poland.”