Every substrata of music geekdom deserves a period piece as intimate as Eden, Mia Hansen-Løve’s swan song for the golden era of French house music. Like Hansen-Løve’s prior Goodbye First Love, starring Lola Creton, the film packs a wallop by deploying its protagonist as of a pair of eyes and ears for the audience, but not an entirely blank slate. Félix de Givry plays Paul, a fictionalized rendition of Hansen-Løve’s co-writer/brother, Sven, first appearing as a vaguely dopey scene kid with a by and large reactive personality. He falls hard as a teenager for garage music—the clanging piano keys, self-refreshing beats, and wall-scaling synthesizer tones—and for the crowd; an early set piece sees a baby-faced Daft Punk world-premiering 1996’s “Da Funk” at a house party. Paul and his friends start a label together; tasked with introducing a song on an underground radio station, he describes “The music that we love…between euphoria and melancholia.”
The narrative is cleaved into two broad chapters: “Paradise Garage” and “Lost in Music,” which was the film’s original, slightly less bombastic title. Within them, Hansen-Løve chases Paul’s peripatetic life trajectory with smooth, patient grace, only stumbling when, fighting for precious time, the film requires a dip into abject melodrama. The mental deterioration of Paul’s friend, Cyril (Roman Kolinka) can’t help but feel step-by-step, making for Eden’s closest approximation of the clichéd musician-breakdown spiral, and a later girlfriend of Paul’s—addicted to his fast-expiring lifestyle—manages to come off like evil incarnate from the moment she appears on screen. (“She’s only bourgeois on the outside,” he whimpers to an eye-rolling friend.) As the flow of Paul’s memories draws itself out further and further, these flashpoints (whether good for Paul or bad) can feel too much like markers. Compared to the dreamlike swirl of earlier passages, montages of Paul DJing for packed crowds at MoMA PS1—a career peak—feel unmotivated, mandatory, and stiff.
The way the Hansen-Løves tell it, the impossible optimism of Paul’s halcyon days gives way to a 21st-century burnout so severe, this pioneering club DJ finds himself sweating over the cost of each and every next-to-last flute of champagne. (Just for its appetite for quotidian detail, comparisons to Carlos, directed by Hansen-Løve’s husband, Olivier Assayas, aren’t inapt.) There can be no doubt that Eden was expensive. The 40-plus-song soundtrack is, to say the least, enveloping, with bass booming in the background as two characters idly chat in a back room—or front-and-center, as Denis Lenoir’s often-handheld camera traces one of their paths across a bustling dance floor. But more than music clearances, the sheer number of scenes and locations is what gives the film its subtle grandiosity—not some epic tracking shot or showoff-y leading performance. However brief their time in Paul’s orbit, the surrounding characters are often more interesting than he is, but so it often goes in life.
The wisdom of the film’s arc is obvious, even if viewers don’t find themselves in thrall by the music itself; Eden is less focused on how it’s supposed to make the audience feel, and more on how the people on screen wrap their lives around it. A bildungsroman with a long tail, the film is as obsessed by with the names, trends, and sounds of its attendant cult as Boyhood was content to fall back safely on each year’s Top 10 hits. For a good dozen years, the party never stops; only when Paul wakes up, destitute and alone in his mid 30s, does he begin to reckon how fruitless his passion has actually been—and it’s not like he’s cut out to do much else. Before the inevitable crash, he catches up with one of his many exes, Julia (Greta Gerwig); the two former lovers speak for the last time in hauntingly stilted English. Having moved to Williamsburg, her writing career soaring, and expecting her first baby with a milquetoast yuppie, she beams to Paul without a trace of malice: “It’s crazy that you haven’t changed.”