Stalled Beat: Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden
Midway through Mia Hansen-Løve’s sprawling, electronic dance music–themed Eden, French DJ Paul (the perpetually doe-eyed Félix de Givry) meets a Chicago DJ with whom he has been corresponding. “Man, you look young,” the man states bluntly. “Yeah, I get that a lot,” Paul bashfully replies. The exchange feels like a playful nod on Hansen-Løve’s part, since the Paul we meet as a young teenager in the film’s 1992-set opening sequence is the same Paul we say goodbye to at the film’s close in 2013—with nothing to differentiate him save for the hint of a 5-o’clock shadow that appears in the mid-2000s. In fact, Paul appears radically ageless throughout Eden.
The film expertly shows the subtlety of growth—or the lack thereof. Paul’s youthful naïveté shifts from sincere to loathsome so deftly that it comes as something of a shock. Suddenly, the ingénue wakes up a narcissist, blaming everyone but himself for his position, having done nothing to get from one point to another but remain still. Time is cyclical, history is bound to repeat itself, time is a flat circle… Eden ignores these common conceptions of time. Instead, Hansen-Løve crafts a film that explores its immobility. As time passes, Paul ages without growing old, he ages without maturing, and he ages without time passing at all; a feat that—because Paul is a man—still locates Eden in the realm of reality rather than sci-fi (women are rarely granted such temporal longevity).
In the film’s opening scene, the young Paul is introduced walking away from an underground rave. He sits alone in the wooded surroundings, thinking, tripping, and concentrating on the still-pounding bass. When the party comes to a close, he wanders back into the club, and begins to talk with the DJ as he packs up his kit. Paul inquires about a song the DJ had played earlier, describing it as “between melancholy and euphoria.” The comment seems comically precocious for a young, teenaged character. And yet Paul’s credulity sells it wholeheartedly. And in fact, “between melancholy and euphoria” becomes the theme of Paul’s life over the years explored by the film. Between is a constant state.
The catalyst for the film’s exploration of Paul’s temporal immobility is the foundation of the DJ duo Cheers with his friend Stan (Hugo Conzelmann). Together, the boys organize regular parities, though perhaps soirées, the word Eden uses in its original French, is more apt. A soirée is a party, but it also means “evening”—hence, like Paul’s liminal status between states of growth and stasis, a soirée encapsulates an activity and a stretch of time all at once. It is at these soirées that Paul and Hugo find their musical bond in a mutual love of garage, a house music sub-genre they love “for the combination of machines and voices.” For Paul, garage is a singular obsession, and Cheers becomes his sole focus. As he establishes himself within the underground music scene, he solidifies his persona as a wunderkind. Paul is talented—of that there is no question. He becomes one of many exceptional men within a culture that celebrates the Don Drapers of the world, allowing all manner of personal shortcomings so long as they are accompanied by professional capability. Talent is posited as a foolproof shield for these men, obscuring personal failings and emotional roadblocks.
As he explains his newfound career to his mother (Arsinée Kahnjian)—including how to pronounce the word DJ: “Dee-jay, come la letter Anglais,” he huffs—her maternal fear manifests in cutting out articles about the dangers of ecstasy. Paul’s mother is so concerned with what he might do during his all-nighters that she overlooks the possibility that the most destructive thing he could do is nothing at all. In Eden, the parties are spaces where time, reason, and adolescence are suspended with equal abandon.
Paul’s parties are perfect tableaus. Each event seems similar, as though it were the same night, over-and-over. There are different crowds, different songs, and different women—and yet nothing changes. Cheers remains a well-liked but ultimately under-the-radar group; Paul remains a skilled but ultimately unmotivated DJ. These nights become a dance music Shangri-La, and Paul becomes the EDM version of Dorian Gray (perhaps with a slowly warping LP in his closet, in lieu of an aging painting in the attic).
The club scene is quicksand to Paul. If he were to fight—to try—he might either succeed or fail, free himself or die. But instead, he stays still, allowing the quicksand to keep its hold on him. Unlike the constant titular refrain in Daft Punk’s “Lose Yourself to Dance,” Paul loses himself to the music in a consistently isolated way. The freedom he finds in partying—at Parisian clubs, MoMA PS1 and, in the later years, rented rundown cruise boats—is achieved through blind concentration. Bent over his decks in the DJ booth, above the audience, Paul is the hermetic leader of a kind of worship. Despite Cheers being a duo, Paul is solitary. His performances afford him a sense of timelessness by drowning out his life. The creeping self-doubt that sneaks into his conscious in his daylight moments—while meeting with his bank representative or asking for yet another loan from his mother—fades away during the bacchanalian distraction of DJing and partying. He can put his head down and focus on his deck, like a schoolboy who can only study with music blaring in his headphones. But instead, Paul focuses on ignoring his emotions, his responsibilities, and the progress of time, until he finds himself in his mid-30s—with the same worldview he had in his teens.
Paul is a figure of remarkable stillness, as if his emotional immobility translates to physical immobility, too. Unlike the undulating crowds enjoying his music, he never dances, instead remaining physically immobile: tight, slight, and wound inward. His only moment of true physical release occurs in the film’s first half, when he chases his girlfriend Louise (Pauline Étienne) throughout the labyrinthine paths of a water park. It is euphoric, almost out of place in Paul’s existence. Even when pursuing Louise during an argument some time later, he barely breaks into a jog; as if his psychological torpor is ossifying his physical self. His emotional and physical immobility translates to a liminal existence: finding his place in the stillness between the infinite outward movement of the past and the future, stretching out in either direction. He is stifled under the weight of years of inaction.
Like Paul, Eden itself stands between: between criticism and celebration of its protagonist. It is reminiscent of a warm observation of a beloved family member of whose decisions you firmly disapprove, all the more so given that the film is a semi-biographical tale co-written by Hansen-Løve’s brother, Sven. And yet, Eden enthusiastically presents transcendent moments married with key pieces of music, which transform the scenes into gorgeous aural landscapes that, for moments at least, make it clear how Paul can be so distractedly enthralled with the world he inhabits. During Eden‘s opening sequence, for instance, DJ and producer Frankie Knuckles’ “The Whistle Song” subtly crescendos, as though music is “overtaking” a young Paul as he parties through the night. Later, Daft Punk’s light, lilting “Veridis Quo” provides a perfectly gentle score to the touching dinner scene in the aftermath of a friend’s death.
Yet the film stops short of fully understanding or supporting Paul, as Eden makes perfectly clear when showcasing how his intermittent moments of professional growth manage to preclude any personal growth. Paul’s trip to New York and Chicago to perform and meet other DJs includes a visit to an old girlfriend, Julia (Greta Gerwig). During their brief Paris fling, Paul had pleaded with her not to go. “Stay in Paris,” he said, “You’ll be a writer, and I’ll be a DJ. We’ll be rich!” The sentiment is so obvious in its naïveté that it is played for laughs. And yet, Paul’s baby-faced sincerity shines through. There is a part of him that believes it to be possible, and that part rears its head upon seeing her once again. Except now, the naïve sincerity of his younger declaration is translated over the years into obliviousness—an expectation that everyone else will remain as immobile as he. Though his intentions for the visit are unclear—romance, friendship, or sheer curiosity—his blank-faced reaction to the now-pregnant Julia and her current partner (the latest alt It-Boy Brady Corbet) showcases his profound inability to face personal growth. When confronted with the current version of a past partner, Paul simply doesn’t know how to react.
It is indeed the women in his life that most keenly reflect the growing chasm between Paul and his friends and family. His mother—long past attempting to convince him to pursue another career—grudgingly hands him cash whenever he visits, to help cover the rent on his tired bachelor apartment. His sister (rarely seen save for a tender early moment when she helps decipher the notes to a new song with her piano prowess) is described as having earned her PhD. She has essentially lapped her older brother, a stark reminder that he is falling behind. Paul reacts to her accomplishment with dismissive disdain.
This is part of a pattern of behaviour wherein Paul is utterly dumbfounded by the prospect that women may not share his desires or admire his life choices. There is also Margot (Aude Pépin), a party girl who refuses to sleep with Paul—a choice that prompts him to exclaim (jokingly, but chillingly), “I could have killed her.” Yet Paul remains a somewhat sympathetic figure, in large part because of de Givry’s performance, which inflects even his most abhorrent moments with an undercurrent of genuine confusion. As if, having understood as a teen that his gender and his talent would open doors for him, he is shocked to find so many closed at the age of 34.
Eden expertly walks the line between celebration and condemnation of Paul by depicting “growing up” as an almost equally messy prospect to not. Paul’s DJ partner Stan is the more mature of the two: married, with a son. Yet he is still grinding away at their moderately successful group, making as little money at their under-attended shows as Paul. Paul’s ex-girlfriend Louise grows up, settles down, and has two children—before splitting up and finding herself back at her mother’s house. But what separates their messy lives from Paul’s is the way in which they deal with these life developments. Stan is obviously more able to manage his finances, and Louise understands and accepts the constraints of her new life.
Paul, on the other hand, reacts with a combination of childish petulance, naïve deer-in-the-headlights glances, and utter emotional breakdowns. He and Louise begin to reunite in the wake of her divorce, and upon a visit to Paris with her daughters, Paul childishly demands of her, “When can we be together?” When she explains that staying with her mother outside the city makes the most sense for her and her daughters, Paul just up and walks away, leaving them at the park without a word.
All the while, the parties continue, though they become less and less joyous. Whereas they began as blissful and revelatory (sometimes literally, as when the young Daft Punk duo premiere their song “Da Funk” at a Halloween house party), they later become morose. In the final party scene, Paul is alone in a sparsely populated club, unable to hide in the typical chaos upon which he has come to rely to drown out his life. Instead of looking down at the audience, here he looks up at the club’s young female DJ, standing serenely behind a MacBook instead of a turntable kit. She is as still and focused as Paul in his earlier performances. His gaze upon her is complex, unreadable: is it jealousy, anger, desire, appreciation? She is, in effect, a female version of Paul. What will the future hold for her? Can her experience of time ever come close to resembling Paul’s stunted temporality, given that she lacks his immense privilege?
In its cool observation of Paul, Eden remains remarkably immobile itself. Hansen-Løve takes the stock narrative of single-minded passion and nakedly exposes it. Instead of a young man’s talent and ardour folding into a foolproof recipe for success, she showcases the alternative. Eden strips bare the cultural assumption that male exceptionalism is a bulletproof shortcut to success. At first, it seems as though Paul’s single-minded focus on his music might pay off. In his youth, his determination is laudable. A decade later, the same staunch resolve reads differently, as his relationships begin to draw his emotionally static personality into sharp relief. It is to Hansen-Løve’s credit that the film so succinctly shows that a thousand soirées can add up to no time at all. Unlike a pounding dubstep song, Eden has no climactic drop. Instead, it is happy to maintain its transfixed observation of Paul, somewhere between melancholy and euphoria.