“Save France with Coke”
The rock and roll life has always been filled with temptation no matter what decade. So electronica, house, and garage music’s heyday (has it ended?) of the 90s proves no exception. With its world of DJs and samplers standing at turntables while their audience danced and raved below, however, learning a little bit of the behind the scenes drama couldn’t hurt from building upon its mystique. Unsurprisingly its luminaries possessed the usual copious amount of drugs, sex, and money woes like in every other genre. What makes Mia Hansen-Løve‘s two-decade spanning look at French Touch pioneer Paul Vallée (Félix de Givry) such an intriguing proposition beyond any industry clichés is that it is based on and co-written by her brother Sven. Eden is therefore a fictionalized look at what really occurred around the advent of this sound.
What I liked about Hansen-Løve’s script construction is that it never feels as though she’s checking off musts from a list. If anything she doesn’t show enough of each year before jumping ahead to the next. She skips almost all of the actual composing of their songs, letting Paul and Cheers partner Stan (Hugo Conzelmann) dream big before suddenly reaching the moon in one simple transition. This is because it isn’t necessarily about the music itself, rather the period in which it was born. It’s about two college kids in Paris deciding to mix sounds and voices like contemporaries Thomas (Vincent Lacoste) and Guy-Man (Arnaud Azoulay)—who’d eventually become Daft Punk and provide the film some fun anonymity comic relief—that found the career they always wanted, one critically acclaimed enough to send them stateside to perform.
Eden is very much a character piece as a result, following Paul’s rise to great heights before his inevitable fall. There’s the revolving door of women, the ones who got away, and the astronomical debt accrued from not paying attention and forgetting a crowded venue half full of people on the comp list doesn’t earn a profit. Weed evolves to ecstasy and ecstasy to cocaine, but Hansen-Løve never falls prey to conventional drug-adled scenes cranked faster or slower. If anything we’re shown how high-functioning these kids are when the “human vacuum” can continuously bring the house down with nary an ill-effect besides strained relationships and self-shielding from the real problems surrounding him. At a certain point a dream’s middling success should signal an end, but Paul always sees next year being the one to turn things around.
He’s very consistent in this cause, ever the optimist and deluded in believing things are under control. We’re talking a thirty-year old adult getting blitzed to the point of needing two people to walk him home who must then visit his mother (Arsinée Khanjian) for money, a woman who probably doesn’t know he neglected to finish his thesis. We pity Paul because it’s sad to see how legitimate success can still get you nowhere. The first half of the story holds so much promise—enough that his inability to be emotionally present with girlfriend Louise (Pauline Etienne) doesn’t seem too bad when he’ll find someone else along the way. But the second half explains how ten-plus years of the stagnancy despite an evolving music climate around him can’t help but lead towards a deadly cliff’s edge.
It took almost three years to produce as a result of music rights issues, but thankfully Hansen-Løve stuck to her vision until everything could be worked out. (Daft Punk agreed to license their tracks for the bare minimum and everyone else followed suit.) Because even though making the music is more or less left off-screen, it still plays a huge role in setting the chaotic mood of each rave. The performance scenes are electrified by writhing bodies in a sea of lights and darks setting up progressions to the bedroom or communal dinners reveling in success. We watch Paul, Stan, and their friends Cyril (Roman Kolinka) and Arnaud (Vincent Macaigne) basking in the artistic glory, everyone awe-struck at what other musicians create without a shred of jealousy. The sense of mutual respect and collaboration is very strong.
This allows de Givry’s performance to remain sympathetic despite his errors, hubris, and self-indulgence. Watching him break down at the news a close friend committed suicide is devastating enough to prevent his inability to open his heart to Louise from forcing us to despise him. There is warmth within that allows him to call an ex-fling out of the blue and invite her and her husband to a show (Greta Gerwig‘s Julia and Brady Corbet‘s Larry). Heck the fact he and Conzelmann’s reserved Stan continue letting their old fans in for free because “they’ve been there since the beginning” shows that it never was about the money or the fame. They set out to make great music and they succeeded. Sadly they did so at a time when the industry turned volatile enough to reap no reward.
Cinematographer Denis Lenoir‘s visual style alone renders Eden worth a look as his aesthetics are wonderfully complemented by the scene’s actual soundtrack. Hansen-Løve’s populating it with three-dimensional characters caught in the ever-changing ebb and flow of artistic success provides the substance to dig beneath surface sheen and find universal conflict and emotion. It’s probably thirty minutes too long for my taste—during the first half as I thought the second act unraveled at a perfect pace—but I never lost interest and kept hoping Paul would somehow come out on top. Despite increased facial hair, however, he’s the one person who never grows up. Constantly stuck in the past, yearning to achieve something even after he earned it, sometimes life’s “dream” chapter must end before the hope for true satisfaction can begin.