The Party's Over: Director Mia Hansen-Love on Her French Electronic Music Epic 'Eden' (Q&A)

'Eden' (June 19)

Cannes award-winning filmmaker Mia Hansen-Love (Goodbye First Love) tackles the story of her generation by exploring the music scene that defined it. The ‘90s "French Touch" sound put a Parisian twist on house music and produced a number of big name musicians, most notably Daft Punk, who play supporting characters in Eden. The film is based on the life of Hansen-Love’s co-writer and brother Sven, who came up with Daft Punk and was a successful DJ in his own right, but later found himself in his 30s broke and with a drug problem, while his compatriots were becoming international superstars. The rise-and-fall storyline has become a trite convention of music biopics, but for the Hansen-Loves, Sven’s story mirrors how their generation’s optimism in 90s turned into post-9/11 disillusionment.

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The 34-year-old writer-director discusses the hard choices she had to make in a film that's both personal and generational.

Tracking the many ups, downs and in-betweens of a Paris-based electronic music DJ from the mid 1990's until now, Mia Hansen-Love's Eden is a generational movie unlike any other. With a soundtrack featuring several hits by Daft Punk, and a cast of mostly unknown French actors, the writer-director's fourth feature is at once broadly ambitious and highly intimate. Like her earlier works, it takes a personal story — in this case, that of Hansen-Love's brother, DJ Sven Love — and transforms it into a reflection on wayward youth, thwarted dreams and the passage of time, with an approach to narrative that relies less on drama than on creating lasting impressions.

While she begins prepping her next feature — inspired by the life of her mother and starring Isabelle Huppert — Hansen-Love sat down with THR to discuss her influences, ambitions and the grueling process of bringing Eden to the big screen. After premiering at the Toronto Film Festival last September, it will be released in U.S. theaters on June 19 via Broad Green Pictures.

[Note: There are a few spoilers toward the end of the interview.]

The story of Eden is based on that of your older brother, DJ Sven Love, with whom you co-wrote the screenplay. Was the project something you had been thinking about for a long time?

It was an idea that had been vaguely germinating while I was making my three other movies, and I thought from time to time about doing something on Sven and the electronic music scene. But things really came together when I understood that Eden would be a generational movie about the 1990’s, just like Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air was a film about the late 1960’s. Yet paradoxical to that film, which is inspired by Olivier’s own story, I realized that if I were to make a movie about my generation, it would deal with my brother. What happened to him perfectly encompasses the aspirations, ideologies and fragility of that time.

In your last film, Goodbye First Love, the story lasted over eight years. In Eden, the narrative spans nearly two decades. It’s extremely ambitious in that sense.

It was precisely such a challenge that interested me. All of my films deal with the passage of time in one way or another, and Eden was really driven by that idea. On the other hand, the way I use narrative time can make my films difficult to produce — people often seen them as chronicles that lack plot twists and other traditional story devices. I’m much more interested in building impressions — in creating moments that resonate — even if they’re not marked by classical conflict. My stories are carried by sentiments, by emotions that exist within us and are invisible on the surface, which is why they can be criticized for lacking drama.

That must have made the project hard to finance.

It was a real struggle from beginning to end. I had to part ways with the producer who had done my first three films, and who worked on this one for a year and a half to no avail. Then I took the project to Said Ben Said [producer of David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars and Roman Polanski’s Carnage], but left him after only three months, after which I signed on with Charles Gillibert, who was the only producer capable of putting the movie together.

You also chose to work with actors who were virtually unknown. That’s the case with the lead, Felix de Givry, who had never starred in a film before.

I made that choice from the very start, and it was important for me to stick to it despite the obvious problems it posed for financing. For me, Eden is a film about people who remained in the shadows, even if Paul, the main character, achieves a certain level of success. But he’s still an outsider, and it would have been a mistake to have him played by someone well known to the public.

How did the shoot of Eden compare to your other movies? It's definitely your biggest production to date.

The experience was so intense that it’s not easy to talk about ... I’ve always loved shooting, and you could say that I’m almost addicted to it. When I shoot a film, I have the feeling that I can finally understand what happiness is, and each time I start a new movie the sensation comes back to me. In some way it’s extremely violent, because when the shoot is over, a real state of melancholy sets in.

It’s a sort of post-partum depression for filmmakers.

It’s awful, and it can last for six months. But I’ve always loved shooting, and so Eden was especially challenging because the shoot was so tough. We lacked money, crew and cast, and some of the scenes were really hard to pull of. There were hundreds of extras for certain sequences, which is something I absolutely wanted. In most small movies, they tell you to just use a few extras and to shoot with long lenses so the backgrounds are blurry. It’s a rule imposed by budget restraints that’s become a convention in many auteur films. But I insisted on having the freedom to shoot the club scenes however I wanted, which meant we needed tons of extras. I had to fight for it, and to sacrifice other things in the process.

The club scenes almost seem like they're out of a documentary.

Exactly, though at the same time, I wanted those scenes to be filled with lyricism, and the entire artistic goal of the film was to have both: to be authentic in terms of how things happened by faithfully depicting what it was like to be at the those parties, but also to create emotion through a particular kind of style and a fluid sense of direction. Finding the equilibrium between those two ideas was absolutely essential.

There’s also this idea in Eden that for Paul, parties are a way of life. They’re a vocation.

The parties become more like jobs and less like parties as time passes. At first, Paul is driven by his own innocence and love of music, but a certain weariness sets in during the second half of the film when he needs to make a living as a DJ and promoter. He’s no longer on a high.

One thing that struck me while observing Sven over the years was the loneliness of his profession. Part of it was due to the widening gap between him and his public: he would keep growing older, while the partygoers — except for some of the faithful fans — would always be in their twenties. You become more and more isolated by those differences, and in any case, the job of a DJ can be incredibly solitary. Your friends may hang around at one point in the night, but then you have to keep spinning until five in the morning. It’s quite horrible.

Early reviews of Eden compared it to Inside Llewyn Davis, and it’s true that there’s a similar trajectory in both movies: One follows a folk musician who didn’t become Bob Dylan, the other a DJ who didn’t become Daft Punk.

I’m a huge fan of the Coen brothers and was extremely moved by Inside Llewyn Davis, which is probably my favorite work of theirs. Actually, the first time I heard about that project was when I was casting Greta Gerwig, who had read the Coen’s script and told me there were some parallels with the story in Eden. I was very intrigued about it, and when I finally saw their movie I was blown away. It’s such a powerful and audacious film to make, especially in the context of American cinema — to make a movie that constantly hammers home the failures and melancholy of its lead character. Even if Eden is very different, I think they have a lot in common at the core.

In the opening scene of the film, Paul arrives at the Submarine, where the rave is already winding down. The film is just beginning, but the party’s already over.

The idea is that Paul is always a little behind what’s happening — he’s chasing after a life that’s a few steps ahead of him. Even the title of the film can be seen in that sense: Eden is a lost paradise, while it’s also the name of an actual rave fanzine that existed at the time. When we were writing the script, Sven explained to me that back in 1992, those who created “Eden” chose the name with this very idea in mind: that the best days were behind them. There’s no such thing as a mythical epoch, when everything was great. In the early '90’s they were already nostalgic for an earlier period. Paradise is always before or after. It’s never now.

Eden lacks the kind of drama one expects in a generational movie. In a more classic film, it would be about the fights between the DJ's or the fact that everyone was jealous of Daft Punk. Instead, the characters are very generous with one another, and if there are any conflicts they are interior ones: everyone is battling his or her own demons.

It’s a very hard movie to defend for those reasons, and people expect much more conflict than I’m willing to give them. When portraying Daft Punk in the film, it was extremely important for me to show that Paul’s relationship with them is not one of bitterness and envy. Even if their success parallels his failure, he loves them and admires them and their music is forever a part of him. There’s never a moment when he’s saying to himself: “I could have been them.” Every character has his rightful place in the story, and they can’t trade it with anyone else.

The Daft Punk tracks in Eden parallel Paul’s own trajectory: “Da Funk” and “One More Time” channel his rise to the top, while “Veridis Quo” and “Within” are used when his career flounders. The last song throws the whole film into a particular light: Paul stands on the dance floor, watching another DJ spin. It’s a scene filled with nostalgia and true sadness.

I don’t necessarily see the “Within” scene like that, though it’s easy to say that it’s a reflection on Paul’s own failures compared to Daft Punk’s success. For me, the scene shows that their music is an essential part of his story, of his life. Sure it’s melancholic, but it also reveals how the world moves on — with DJ's now using Macbooks instead of turntables — and it’s not at all a bad thing.

What’s crazy about “Within” is that while Sven and I were writing the movie, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories hadn’t come out yet, so we had never heard the song. Then when we were trying to get Eden made, the album was released and “Within” became a key to me for understanding the film and the character of Paul. I realized that Daft Punk had not only been around at the beginning of Paul’s career, but that they were still part of our lives today — the past of the film was echoed in the present. “Within” became the missing piece of Eden’s puzzle.

Besides the songs of Daft Punk, there’s also Robert Creeley’s poem, “The Rhythm,” which is used during the final sequence. The words appear on screen, and the closing lines are: “light at the opening, dark at the closing.” At the same time, Paul’s room is bathed in sunlight, and despite the foreboding text, the scene doesn’t necessarily come across as tragic.

The poem is taken from a collection called The End. But even though it’s the end of the film, I really see that scene as the beginning of Paul’s new life. Everything he’s gone through, all of the time he’s lost over the years, was perhaps necessary for him to start something new — something even more essential to his existence.

When I watched a first cut of the film, I realized something else about that scene: it’s the first time we see Paul alone in his own apartment. In all of the other scenes, he’s always there with one of his girlfriends, and he’s incapable of being by himself. Eden begins in confusion, in a fog of music and drugs, with Paul as a teenager trying to figure out who he really is. The idea at the end is that he’s finally reached some level of clarity. Now he can exist on his own terms.