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'Eden': Flaubert Meets Daft Punk

06/08/2015 00:44 | Updated 05 August 2016

Mia Hansen-Løve is, at thirty-four, the most measured prodigy in contemporary French cinema. After her breakthrough second feature The Father Of My Children (a classy, mature disquisition on family, money and depression) and Goodbye First Love (a Rohmerian swoon to young romance), her new film Eden, written with brother Sven, has traits of her previous two, but is comfortably her most ambitious yet, spanning nearly twenty years and a wider clutch of characters.

Paul and Stan are Cheers, an aspirant pair of DJs who hit the Parisian club scene at the same time as a little-known duo called Daft Punk. Their favoured genre is garage, which in Paul's words combines "the robotic aspect of electro with the warmth of soul." From 1992 to 2008, Eden traces the whirl of their rise until they gradually, arbitrarily, fall out of fashion. A fable of thwarted possibilities, it deglamorises nineties dance as artfully as Inside Llewyn Davis did sixties Greenwich Village folk.

Relative newcomer Félix de Givry is wonderful as Paul. With his dimpled good looks and straight-backed fluidity, over two decades his face stubbles itself with debt and disappointment. Paul's retinue - especially volatile illustrator Cyril and less-shifty-than-he-looks producer Arnaud - have the same peppery charm.

The only false note is the subplot with Paul's American lover Julia. On paper, Greta Gerwig is perfect casting (her Frances Ha is a whimsical NY inversion of Paul's artist-in-the-city: she even flies to Paris). But something odd happens to Eden's subtleties in English. The script stiffens its shoulders, de Givry loses his mystique, and their interactions become soppy and strained, the sort of transatlantic earnestness you get in Before Sunrise. Shame, as the rest of the film is as well-tempered as the proverbial clavier.

The mesmeric opener in the woods sets the autumnal gauze, all dewy fog, hallucinations under the arbours and smoke in the shoreless city. Jonathan Romney's excellent Observer review compared Eden to Flaubert's Sentimental Education. There's definitely (amongst other elements to which I'll return like a bear to honey) the same shifting appreciation of Paris dependent on the hero's mood. But there are also shades of Frank O'Hara in the parallel between Paul's art and the stammering vivacity of his temperament, Paradise Garage lost in the untended, unintended garden of Eden.

Music inhibits as much as it liberates. Paul's gigs regress from rammed clubs to family gatherings and the dance floor becomes a metaphor for his subconscious. At two particularly empty parties where small children dance with their parents (including Stan), Paul's escapist arena is invaded by reflections of his own incapacity for fatherhood.

Meanwhile, rivals Thomas and Guy-Man ascend with gauche inevitability. (Modest gags recur, like their failure to get past doormen unmasked). The highpoint of the film is an extended montage where Paul staggers round clubs in a post-traumatic mist set to Daft Punk's 'Veridis Quo', a hypnotically sad organ-and-bass elegy, a sort of electro-Handel. Even Paul's lowest ebb is soundtracked by Daft Punk, and it's telling that Cheers - hyped at the start as "barely twenty and very talented" - only seem to mix other people's music rather than create their own.

Paul's professional stasis is especially disappointing because he deconstructs music with an easy, almost impatient eloquence. The gang's pontifications on art, like the painter Pellerin's in Sentimental Education, have a neurotic coherence they fail to translate into commercial reward. "You don't get it, it's modern disco", Cyril snarls when their friend Louise turns her nose up at 'Da Funk'. Later, Paul decisively dismisses a list of possible beats for a new track ("too feminine", "too heavy", "too fat"). This fascinates a novice like me, but the film is as thoughtful a host to the uninitiated (like Paul's pithy explanation of why it's called garage) as to experts who'd recognise cameo-legends Tony Humphries and Arnold Jarvis.

Sexually, Paul drifts from partner to partner. He gravitates, most frequently, to the capricious Louise (a deft Pauline Etienne). Perhaps, to borrow from Flaubert, the more her basic personality irritates him, the more drawn he is by a bestial sensuality, illusions of a moment that end in hate. But there's also drink-rinsing party girl Margot and his mum's favourite Yasmin (Golshifteh Farahani). Drugs are hoovered up with decreasing joy, the lowpoint the comedown where Paul rocks on the floor next to his bed and howls at Yasmin to "make the music stop".

The music will never stop entirely, and it's closer to melancholy than euphoria. Eden is soaked in twenties ennui, torn halfway through by an abrupt death (a very Hansen-Løve trope), then frayed, slowly, by Paul's guilt towards his mum. "Years passed; and he endured the idleness of his intelligence and the inertia of his heart." This is Flaubert (again), but it distils Paul to a tee. July is over and there's very little trace: time for Paul to refountain himself in the poetry of the new, to resist the cellars of sentiment and the jealous spiritualities of the abstract, and move on.

This is an exceptional film, and Hansen-Løve's most complete so far. It reappropriates and revitalises a time and movement as perceptively and lovingly as Daft Punk reinvigorate disco. It is unalienatingly poetic, a cine-musical style indirect libre where the music the audience hear is as likely to be in the characters' heads as on the dance floor, and Flaubert (as much as superstars-around-the-corner Daft Punk) is the all-pervading melodious drumbeat: he infuses the desultory romances, the financial troubles, the competitive friendships, the coming-of-age, the air of (musical rather than political) revolution. But ultimately, it's about the music, the serrated thrill of losing yourself to dance, and though its party sequences intoxicate, viewers probably won't rush from the cinema to the nearest rave. With Eden, Mia Hansen-Løve orchestrates the motifs of potential and precocity from the privileged position of having fulfilled hers.