French director Mia Hansen-Love’s elegantly constructed movies take their time establishing detailed worlds with believable characters, but they never stop moving forward. Her last two features, the ode to heartbreak “Goodbye First Love” and the family drama “The Father of My Children,” both covered lengthy time periods with a fascinating degree of understatement. Emotion seeps into these narratives from unsuspecting directions.
“Eden,” her fourth effort, elevates this approach to a more ambitious scale. It encompasses the history of the French electronic music scene over the course of 20 years while rooting each moment in the experiences of a single, fragile protagonist. Based on the career path of her brother Sven — who co-wrote the movie with his sister — “Eden” tracks the dreams and frustrations of an aspiring French DJ named Paul (Felix de Givry), one half of a duo Cheers that plays a pioneering role in the rise of the French house music scene (otherwise known as the “French touch”). Along with his pal Greg, Paul hurtles through countless late night studio sessions and carefree dance parties, falls in and out of relationships, rubs shoulders with burgeoning DJ legends, grapples with addiction, and journeys from Paris to New York and back again. Music is the only constant in his life.
Kicking off in 1992, the movie takes place in two parts: “Paradise Garage,” a chronicle of Cheers’ early commitment and excitement over the possibilities of the scene, and “Lost in Music,” set in the first decade of the new millennium, when the novelty has worn off. It doesn’t take long to get swept up in the flow of these experiences, as Paul staves off his mother’s concerns about neglecting his studies and pursues the wild scene. The smaller moments are offset by impressively assembled party scenes that stitch the story’s erratic series of events together.
Cinematographer Denis Lenoir gives these moments a rich neon palette, while familiar faces from the actual scene come and go. The most notable of these are the members of Daft Punk, appearing as themselves in several moments throughout the story to fuel a running gag in which nobody recognizes them; they’re known for their beats, not their faces.
That same elusive quality also speaks to Paul’s conundrum: His experience is so connected to the communal nature of the scene that he often seems lost in the crowd — and unable to break away from it. While Cheers continues to work the circuit with mixed results, Paul copes with a series of comparatively pithy lifestyle issues, notably involving his love life. After pining for the love of an American woman (Greta Gerwig), he settles for the affections of a fellow scenester (a frantic Pauline Etienne), only to realize that by chasing his dreams he lacks the capacity to invest any affection in those around him.
However, in spite of its melancholic star, “Eden” remains a lively affair. One perceptive bit finds Paul encountering his ex-girlfriend alongside her protective husband (Brady Corbet) and awkwardly trying to hide his disappointment by exhibiting enthusiasm for his craft. But at the subsequent concert — a vibrant party sequence set at MoMA’s PS1 — it’s clear that the music provides more escape than catharsis for his troubled mind.
The sibling writers venture beyond the plight of their star to explore the larger context of the scene, with a number of memorable supporting characters drifting in and out of the picture. The narrative is interspersed with small, telling moments, including one amusing bit in which the fun-loving Arnaud (Vincent Lacoste) makes a passionate case to his friends about the appeal of “Showgirls.” Elsewhere, they debate the merits of taking ecstasy. Rather than merely celebrating the culture of raves, “Eden” drifts through details so delicately that the precisely calibrated you-are-there element never lets up even as the years fly by.
All of Hansen-Love’s movies dare viewers to just go with the unassuming flow and stop waiting for conventional plot twists. “Eden” is no exception: Hansen-Love casts such a broad net, focusing on atmosphere over the ease of a tightly-wound narrative, that at times its trajectory has a distancing effect. Much of Paul’s journey is internalized; by the time he faces the prospects of a nervous breakdown, it comes as a surprise even though the filmmaker has been quietly building evidence of it all along.
But the loose set of events in “Eden” would be far less compelling if they weren’t paired with a vibrant soundtrack constructed with nearly as much attention to detail as the film itself. A veritable history lesson in the genre at its center, the soundtrack encompasses electronic staples ranging from Daft Punk’s “Da Funk” to lesser-known but equally groovy selections like Love Committee’s “Just As Long As I Got You.”
Hansen-Love captures the composition of the music on turntables and dials, showcasing a blend of analog and digital technology that reflects its popularity at a transitional moment. Portraying a generation so energized by possibilities that it was bound to be let down, “Eden” offers a wise assessment of the interplay between fantasy and reality on the path to adulthood. The seductive rhythms are a perfect match for a movie that analyzes the unstoppable flow of life.
“Eden” opens in limited release this Friday.