'Eden': Toronto Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Mia Hansen-Løve's electronic dance music saga is her most ambitious and affecting work yet

French director Mia Hansen-Løve chronicles the rise and fall of the Parisian DJs who didn't become Daft Punk

Thirty-three-year-old French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve has built a reputation at home and abroad for dramas in which emotionally seismic events — suicide, depression, life-altering heartbreak — unfold with barely a raised voice. That refusal to play to the viewer’s gut has been both a strength and weakness; her first three movies (All is Forgiven, The Father of My Children and the overpraised Goodbye First Love), sensitive and carefully crafted as they were, felt restrained to the point of recessiveness.

Hansen-Løve’s new film, Eden, which traces the rise of electronic dance music from the ’90s to the present through a portrait of the pulsing nights, bleary-eyed days and many loves of a young Parisian DJ, is unmistakably hers: the naturalistic performances, fluid, unfussily precise camerawork and fascination with the passage of time and the slipping away of illusions are there, once again.

But Eden (which Hansen-Løve co-wrote with her brother, Sven, based on his experiences) is less mannered in its remoteness than the earlier work. Though there are moments you long for the director to pull us in closer — to make us feel more intensely the “euphoria and melancholy” one character mentions — this graceful, deeply affecting movie has a soulfulness and sweep that mark it as a step forward for Hansen-Løve.

Positive critical reaction at Toronto and a slot at the New York Film Festival (as well as the presence of American actress Greta Gerwig in a small but crucial role) will help Eden secure US distribution.

Like most of Hansen-Løve’s protagonists, Paul (Félix de Givry) is an outwardly passive figure, but contrary to the inexpressive heroine in Goodbye First Love, he reveals unsuspected layers of tenderness and intelligence. Early on, we see him bickering with his worried mother (Arsinée Khanjian), partnering with Stan (Hugo Conzelmann) to form a garage house duo called Cheers and hitting the rave scene with friends like the slightly older Arnaud (currently ubiquitous French actor Vincent Macaigne) and moody artist Cyril (Roman Kolinka). True to Hansen-Løve’s artistic temperament, the nightlife sequences in Eden have none of the show-stopping explosiveness of the club-going in James Gray’s The Yards, We Own the Night and Two Lovers. She and cinematographer Denis Lenoir move the camera coolly across the dance floor, taking in the flashing lights, clouds of cigarette smoke, raised arms and faces tilted toward the ceiling in ecstatic — and often ecstasy-induced — appreciation of the music.

As Cheers starts becoming more popular on the Parisian after-hours circuit, Eden also turns its attention to Paul’s merry-go-round of romantic entanglements. Among the women who share his bed, if not always his yearnings, are an American expat (Gerwig), a vampish social climber (Laura Smet) and a mercurial, strong-willed friend named Louise (a vivid Pauline Etienne). The push and pull of Louise’s relationship with Paul — from her first rebuffed advances to his surprisingly enduring need for her — make for some of Eden’s most memorable visions, including a late-night kiss in the back of a taxi, the camera lingering on their faces after they pull away, as well as a piercingly authentic fight on a sidewalk in Queens.

The years pass, and two of Paul’s friends, Thomas Bangalter and Guy Manuel de Homem-Christo aka Daft Punk (played by rising French star Vincent Lacoste and Arnaud Azoulay), start becoming the sensation they are today. Meanwhile, Cheers’ brand of music, with soul vocals layered over synthesized beats, falls out of fashion (just as Inside Llewyn Davis was about the folk singer who didn’t become Bob Dylan, Eden is about the guys who didn’t become Daft Punk). There are drug addictions, financial fiascos, bad breakups and pressure from club owners to bring in new crowds hungry for the latest sounds — in other words, the same dysfunctions and disappointments that arrive like clockwork in the third act of nearly all films about artists. But while there’s plenty of pain in Eden, it’s whispered rather than wailed, and the viewer is spared the histrionics that usually accompany onscreen falls from grace.

If Hansen-Løve’s tactfulness as a filmmaker has a limitation, it’s that it prevents her from getting at any deeper impulse behind Paul’s lifestyle; what, exactly, aside from the restlessness of youth and a basic love of music, drives him and his friends into the night and, specifically, the mixing booth? We see people having fun in Eden, but we don’t fully grasp the passion, obsessiveness or urgency behind their creative process.

What the film does capture, on the other hand, with great generosity and searching intelligence, is the eternal struggle to build a life doing what you love — and to continue loving it as you age and change. There’s not an ounce of sanctimony or naivete in Hansen-Løve’s vision of the artist’s life — her handling of Gerwig’s aspiring writer is a testament to that — nor, despite the emptiness that gnaws at Paul as time goes on, are there any cautionary implications about hedonistic behavior.

Eden is indeed as low-key as anything Hansen-Løve has done, though it conveys a sense of risk that feels new for her — both in the scope of the story and in specific choices she makes. The final scene finds the director, in her modest way, reaching for the sublime as an older, wiser Paul sits on his bed and opens a book of poetry offered to him by a recent acquaintance. It’s a moment of understated beauty, encapsulating the ache of regret at the heart of Eden, as well as the film’s stubborn faith in the possibilities of reinvention, human connection and art. The party's over, but there are new adventures to come.

Production company: CG Cinéma
Cast: Felix De Givry, Pauline Etienne, Vincent Macaigne, Greta Gerwig, Golshifteh Farahani, Laura Smet, Vincent Lacoste
Director: Mia Hansen-Løve
Screenwriters: Mia Hansen-Løve, Sven Hansen-Løve
Producer:Charles Gillibert
Director of photography: Denis Lenoir
Production designer: Anna Falguères
Editor: Marion Monnier
Music: Daft Punk, Joe Smooth, Frankie Knuckles, Terry Hunter, MK...
Sales: Kinology

131 minutes