A subtle portrait of an EDM Adam, Eden is neither a star-is-born fable nor a soul-is-lost parable. In 1992, teenage Paul (Felix de Givry) gives his life to Paris' house-music scene. Two decades later, he reluctantly takes it back.
This bilingual drama continues in the restrained mode director and co-writer Mia Hansen-Love established in three previous features, including The Father of My Children and Goodbye First Love. If Eden is a little warmer than its predecessors, that's partly due to dance music's Dionysian vibe. But it also reflects the fact that Paul is based on the filmmaker's brother, Sven Hansen-Love, who co-scripted.
Paul, in fact, is supposed to be a writer. But he begins to neglect his literature studies after he discovers a new American sound that combines old-school soul with next-wave beats. The music's most famous outpost is Manhattan's Paradise Garage, and so it's known as "garage."
At first, Paul and his friends attend secret parties, whether in suburban warehouses or decommissioned submarines. Gradually, the rave scene is absorbed by commercial nightclubs. Paul and laconic fellow garage enthusiast Stan (Hugo Conzelmann) form a DJ duo, Cheers, to spin imported 12-inches at various venues. At their most successful, the two book gigs in New York and make a pilgrimage to Chicago to meet some house-music idols. (Several such figures have cameos in the movie.)
Dance music becomes Paul's job, but he can't figure out how to make it pay. He draws down his inheritance and borrows from all his pals who have money to spare. The DJ's enthusiasm for cocaine doesn't help, and neither does his musical purism. He keeps playing American house music as its popularity wanes. Meanwhile, cohorts Thomas and Guy-Man (Vincent Lacoste and Arnaud Azoulay) become famous as Daft Punk, purveyors of sleek second-generation Eurodisco.
If music is a fickle vocation, so is romance. Paul bounces from Julia (Greta Gerwig), an American who shares his interest in writing, to Louise (Pauline Etienne), an earthy Parisian scenester. Gerwig's performance is tentative, but Etienne is lively and believable, notably in a New York sequence where Louise jealously refuses to meet Julia.
Both women become mothers after leaving Paul, which is probably what actually happened in Sven's life, but which also highlights the DJ's inability to grow into adult responsibility. No wonder Paul's mom (Arsinee Khanjian) is worried — and she doesn't know even half her son's problems.
Eden was elegantly shot with handheld camera by Denis Lenoir, whose credits include Carlos, a film by Hansen-Love's spouse, Olivier Assayas. The two directors take similarly naturalistic approaches to exposition, based on short vignettes and evocative details and avoiding stagey scenes in which characters directly explain their motivations.
A moment of ecstatic musical release is an Assayas trademark, whether the elation is communal or — as in the recent Clouds Of Sils Maria — solitary. But in Eden, the rapture is muted. While the movie includes dozens of thumping tracks, it never tries to simulate the sensations of an intense dance-floor experience. Of the relatively small numbers of fiction films that examine rave culture, this may be the driest.
The director risks losing the audience in the second part, in which the joy drains from Paul's musical pursuits. In one scene, the DJ cleans up after a long night at a club, popping balloons that are as festive as dirty napkins now that the party's over. It's a ready-made metaphor, but Hansen-Love doesn't emphasize it.
Instead, she shows the slow deflation of Paul's passion. And how the beat goes on, without him.