When I go to my local arthouse for something independent and obscure, I expect to find something new. A movie that isn’t like the CGI monotony of blockbuster cinema, especially during the summer season. But in recent years, it feels like I’ve merely been trading one kind of monotony for another.
I’ve long since grown tired of coming-of-age films and the way arthouse cinema has become overgrown with them. Just when it seemed like the tide was starting to turn, we got hit with the triple-whammy of Dope, Eden, and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that all three are getting good reviews, but I already miss the variety we had when arthouse fans had Ex Machina, Maggie, and What We Do in the Shadows to choose from. Then again, it bears remembering that Dope (however flawed) was a very good movie that had its own refreshingly unique take on the “coming-of-age” formula.
So next up is Eden, which comes to us from director/co-writer Mia Hansen-Love. The film was cowritten by brother Sven Hansen-Love, inspired by his own experience as a successful French DJ in the ’90s. It may also bear mentioning that Mia’s husband is Olivier Assayas, who recently did the unthinkable and proved Kristen Stewart to be a legitimate talent in Clouds of Sils Maria earlier this year.
Last but not least, the filmmakers were able to procure the blessing of some true EDM heavyweights. Legendary house artists La India, Arnold Jarvis, Tony Humphries, and Terry Hunter all make appearances as themselves and bring their magic to the film. Even better, Sven was a contemporary of French EDM pioneers Daft Punk (also supporting characters in the film), who reportedly licensed their songs to the filmmakers for rock-bottom rates.
(Side note: That turned out to save the production a ton of money when it came to procuring songs from other artists — who’s going to try and ask for more money than Daft Punk?)
The premise, cast, and crew all made for such a bizarre combination that I simply had to give it a look.
Right off the bat, I can tell you that I had been misinformed about this movie. The narrative may start out in 1992 or so, but it ends up in the neighborhood of 2013. So the scope isn’t really “coming-of-age” so much as it’s “biopic.” It’s a story about the rise and fall of a young DJ (Paul, played by Felix de Givry) who just happened to be at the right place and the right time when the “French touch” movement became a thing.
I can’t begin to place enough emphasis on the musical aspect, because that really is the heart and soul of this picture. Huge stretches of screen time are spent at parties in various clubs and houses, and they are all mesmerizing. The house music is awesome, the lighting is psychedelic, the camerawork and editing are beautifully atmospheric. Anytime the characters are spinning music, dancing on the floor, assembling tracks, trading notes in a recording booth, or jamming on the airwaves, this movie shows a passion for house music that’s positively infectious.
The rest of the movie, not so much.
The big problem with this film — especially in the first 90 minutes or so — is that the narrative blows through 20 years in two hours. Even worse, it tries to do all of this without any regard for three-act structure, rising/falling tension, or other such plot fundamentals that we in the States take for granted. Couple the massive time jumps with a complete lack of narrative structure, and the audience is left floundering for want of anything to hold onto.
It’s the massive time jumps that really break the plot. This isn’t like Boyhood, where the time jumps were each roughly a year, give or take; no, the time jumps in this movie can go for anywhere from two to five years. In that time, we’re left with no idea about which characters have come and gone, how the group dynamics have changed among the cast, or anything else that’s happened to these characters. This obviously makes it a huge fucking chore to keep track of the characters, their relationships, and their development arcs. Which is the entire crux of such an intimate and personal story as a coming-of-age/biopic movie. Needless to say, it’s a dealbreaking problem.
But then the 90-minute mark passes by, and a strange thing happened.
First of all, the time jumps became shorter and less frequent. This is also the point in the story when Paul begins his slide into ruin and obsolescence, so the plot overall became much more focused and easy to comprehend. More importantly, this is the point in the film when we revisit Paul’s old friends and colleagues, many of whom haven’t been seen since much earlier in the film. And they’ve all gone in different directions while Paul has stayed on the same old path. And this raised a very interesting point.
In every character Paul meets, we see a glimpse of what Paul himself might have been. We see his old acquaintances Daft Punk (here portrayed by Vincent Lacoste and Arnaud Azoulay, sans costumes of course), and wonder if Paul ever had a chance at being the evergreen superstars they turned out to be. Earlier on in the film, a friend of Paul’s (I don’t dare spoil whom) commits suicide at a young age. As Paul grows older — crushed with debt, wrecked by cocaine addiction, out of work for dealing in an obsolete musical genre — it’s easy to look back on the suicide and wonder if that friend had the right idea, going out on top.
Then we have the parade of Paul’s old lovers. We’ve got his affair with a married woman (Julia, played by Greta Gerwig), we’ve got longtime friend Louise (Pauline Etienne), we’ve got the high-maintenance trainwreck (Margot, played by Laura Smet), and some others I won’t discuss here. Some of them leave Paul on good terms, others not so much. Some of them go on to live happy and productive lives while others are never heard from again. And in every case, we have to wonder if things would have been better off if Paul had gone with them to seek greener pastures in another career. Or maybe everyone would have been happier if they had parted ways sooner.
Oh, and then we have Paul’s mother (Arsinee Khanjian), an overbearing and out-of-touch old biddy who seriously can’t even spell “DJ.” Because of course we had to have one of those cliched characters. But let’s get back to the point.
The film seems heavily focused on the question of “What if?” It’s all about watching people start from the same position and then end up in wildly different places because of the different choices they’ve made. And I’m sure we’ve all had at least one moment when we catch up with an old friend who’s doing really well and we wonder “Why couldn’t that have been me?” Or maybe that old friend is doing terribly and we think “But for the grace of God…” Moreover, Paul has chosen a career that’s very treacherous by nature. There are no long-term plans in his line of work because everything could fall apart in an instant at any time. So there’s always a question of when it’s prudent to move forward, whether to move on to something else, or if he’s gone so far down this path that he has no place else to go.
Then again, given the bizarre nature of the plot, it’s possible that I’m giving the filmmakers too much credit. Or missing the point entirely.
It’s tough to comment on the cast, since there are so many actors in this movie and virtually none of them have enough screen time or consistent character development to work with. Pauline Etienne was suitably charming as Louise, and Felix de Givry did a decent job of holding things down as the central character, but that’s about it.
Eden works far better as a love letter to garage house music than as a coherent narrative. Between the lopsided pacing, the massive time jumps, and the revolving door of cast members, this one was an absolute slog to get through whenever there wasn’t a party going on. Any EDM fans out there should make it a priority to rent this as quickly as possible. Everyone else can either wait for a rental or skip it entirely.