The Test of Time
Eden is a beguiling film, one that I have felt compelled to watch multiple times – even though there is nothing exceptionally “strong” in it, no detachable, anthological moments (except maybe the fervent Showgirls discussion!), few memorable lines per se. But it has something, in its steady unfolding, that is quietly gripping.
Many admirers of the film (such as Sarinah Masukor in her superb LOLA essay) have expressed it well: this portrait of a particular music scene – the “French touch” variant on the Garage house era of DJ mixes, from the early 1990s onward, that covered Cheers (one half of which was the director’s older brother, Sven Hansen-Løve aka Sven Love) and Daft Punk – finds a tone, an ambience, a drift that meshes perfectly with the sonic material of its subject matter (as best embodied, here, by Frankie Knuckles’ “The Whistle Song”). It is rare indeed for mise en scène, narrative and a very culturally specific soundtrack to fit together so snugly and so well. Mia Hansen-Løve clearly knows this history intimately, for there are no false notes in it (usually so common in this type of film).
On this level, it makes for an intriguing double bill with Michael Winterbottom’s sole excellent (and thoroughly authentic) movie, 24 Hour Party People (2002): different music (Factory Records), different slice of history (late 1970s to ‘90s), some similar themes and motifs (success, legacy, personal happiness – and the problems associated with attaining and keeping any of them). But where Winterbottom and his writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce rightly seize on a busy, fragmented, chaotic, mosaic approach, Eden is an altogether more “chill” affair.
Like Ethan Hawke’s underrated Blaze (2018), Eden is, to a large extent, about those contributors to a cultural scene who do not make it into the big time (as Daft Punk did), even as they help define and shape it at its origin and core. An all too familiar tale! It’s a story of gradual losses: passionate relationships fail, people drop out of the “movement”, some die, some “sell out” to the mainstream market. Drugs (cocaine being the favourite substance abused here) and other complications throw spanners in the works. More particularly, the spectre of “normality” – as defined by the acceptance of jobs, marital responsibilities, kids – menaces the free-floating, hedonistic, “time standing still” lifestyle of music and dance and popped-pills in the night, in some forest far from the Paris centre …
For a while, it all floats along pretty nicely for everyone involved: Paul (Félix de Givry, who embodies an understated, sometimes even blank role well – he is called on for pure presence) wanders from one love affair to another (the women are played by, among others, Laura Smet and Golshifteh Farahani); the centre of his sentimental life is Louise (Pauline Étienne). He travels the world – which gives him a chance to catch up with an American ex, Julia (Greta Gerwig, playing it straight for a change), in Chicago and New York (Brady Corbet also has a small role there).
Circling Paul is an entire, shifting troupe – some of its in-and-out members become familiar to us (like the only pop-out “colourful eccentric” in the bunch, Arnaud played by the patented “excessive” actor-director Vincent Macaigne), others don’t. There are friends, fans, hangers-on, managers, producers, technicians … cultural workers of all sorts and also a few visionaries – predominantly the dour, troubled, seemingly incurable misogynist, Cyril (Roman Kolinka). One of the points made, in the course of things, is that the diagnosis of something like depression was so easily lost in the blurry haze of countercultural fun-times, even in a period as recent as the 1990s.
But Paul, at the centre of this blissful whirl, is also, increasingly, confronted with the nemeses of destiny: should he have had children with that woman? Should he have set up a proper business with this friend? Should he have stuck to his PhD, maybe became a writer? (Sven, in reality, is now indeed a writer, so there’s a cleverly disguised bildungsroman in filigree here.) Like a paler, less spectacular inversion of 24 Hour Party People, the good times ride, but the debts abide: problems with the bank (that damn clerk who enjoys his club freebies too much!), with equipment, with venues (Hansen-Løve captures, with startlingly charming accuracy, the wonky audio mix of famous pop-soul singers [La India, Arnold Jarvis] belting live into a microphone, alone on a makeshift club stage, while backing tapes play or discs spin … and the crowd eats it up).
The bubble must burst: that could be an image for all of Hansen-Løve’s cinema to date. Eden expresses, best of all her films, that tension between the sensation of an “eternal present” (especially keen in the nightclub world!) – the period of “first love”, absolute rapture, intoxication, or “One More Time” according to Daft Punk’s 2000 anthem – and the changes that passing time induces: the veritable Test of Time. It thus becomes the chronicle of a generation as it weathers the years, decisions, regrets, memories, alterations of destiny. Ultimately, that spectre of normality registers ambiguously both as come-down and salvation, boredom and paradise: Hansen-Løve expertly balances all the emotions in the final scenes, where the merest brush of a new encounter (with a woman in Paul’s writing class) suggests a different, happier future to come, while the poem she gives him – Robert Creeley’s “The Rhythm”, both heard in voice-over and read bilingually on-screen – concludes on a sobering “light at the opening / dark at the closing”. But there’s also the ecstatic end-credit dance to Charles Dockins’ “Happy Song”, beyond all narrative time …
Whereas Olivier Assayas sometimes labours to articulate an earnest, moral philosophy about this human situation of change (and loss of youthful vitality) in Summer Hours (2008) or Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), Hansen-Løve tends to the less explicitly stated aura of a sagacious flow, harmony or equilibrium – hard-won, always fragile, constantly threatened – that her characters arrive at: in the sheltering banalities of daily life, inside traffic or alongside a river, as the sweet folk music plays … Fashions change, values shift, social priorities move: Hansen-Løve underscores that without a word, in the indelible image of a “new wave” on the rise at the end of the period depicted – a female DJ (Clara Deshayes) fixedly at work, picking up and amplifying the echo of an earlier character who came and went in a flash …
Eden stays all the way with its lovely (sometimes seemingly non-stop) Garage soundtrack, and devises (with brilliant cinematographer Denis Lenoir) a persuasive, elegant camera strategy to bind the ensemble of the filmic narrative: long, slow movements that find one character and then another in a crowd, eschewing (as Masukor notes) any ersatz mimicking of the “subjectivity” of the crazy drug-rave experience. It’s a different, more mellow kind of euphoria registered here. Incessant travelling motion – in cabs, on foot and (in an echo of Irma Vep ) in duo on motorbike – draws its own dreamy itinerary. Languorous scene transitions, set to slow cross-fades of the music tracks, help stretch out the mood ably. There is a mellow, slightly detached and distanced perspective here (the director, tellingly, only glancingly depicts herself, as the hero’s “little sister”, a couple of times, and usually in the home setting).
Hansen-Løve and Assayas (they were a couple at this time) form the beachhead, in international cinema, of an approach we could name Bressonian naturalism. That is to say, the narrative form is primarily elliptical in the Bressonian manner (major events are skipped or downplayed); but this overarching structure does not come accompanied (as is almost always the case) with a correspondingly severe or spare stylisation of speech, gesture, posture, framing and sound design. Hansen-Løve and Assayas opt, instead, for a naturalistic flow of behaviour and performance – often in a low or understated key, but basically realistic and believable in its details.
This Bressonian naturalism can seem (certainly to some, uneasy viewers, especially the self-appointed “disciples” of Bresson) as a contradiction in terms – although (thankfully) there is no law that dictates how style and subject should correspond in every single instance of cinema. In essence, both Hansen-Løve and Assayas aim for an effect of de-dramatisation, of non-melodrama (non-theatrical, non-histrionic) – even when potentially melodramatic events (such as suicide, abortion, betrayal or murder) punctuate the story. But this particular patina of deliberate flatness derives from an overall treatment of the construction, pacing and “pitch” of the film (its “tuning”), rather than the moment-to-moment work on the shots.
Scenes too, certainly in Hansen-Løve, are rarely virtuosic or exhibitionistic on any level: a neat bit of social mise en scène revealing how two people say goodbye to each other in a car is a subtle exception to this quasi-Bressonian rule. In all, this manifestation of Bressonian naturalism an intriguing experiment, and one that Hansen-Løve has stuck to (in her prior and subsequent films, such as Things to Come ) more faithfully than the eclectic, skittish, genre-drawn Assayas. The editing of Marion Monnier (for these two directors as well as Mikhaël Hers, Éléna Klotz and even Larry Clark on The Smell of Us ) is clearly crucial to the experiment’s success, when it works.
Eden does not entirely avoid the all-too-common traps of heavy thematic signposting, even “editorialising”. That Cyril (modelled on the graphic novelist Mathias Cousin) is headed for long bouts of depression, and finally worse, is flagged from almost his first gloomy, withdrawn, spikey appearance. Likewise, Paul’s looming drug problem within the wild DJ world is announced upfront by … his mother (Arsinée Khanjian) – perhaps the attempt there was to somehow dodge cliché precisely by incarnating the worst and most obvious cliché!
Such are the inevitable narrational, organisational
problems and challenges inherent in the “chronicle of a generation” form. But
Hansen-Løve in Eden gives this form
one of the brightest and most soulful moments in its cinematic history.
© Adrian Martin February/March 2020