Mia Hansen-Løve’s potently amorphous music drama Eden follows Paul (Félix De Givry), a French electronic dance DJ, over two decades, and you could be forgiven for finding his 131-minute odyssey wandering, unfocused, and overlong. The defense admits that Hansen-Løve is militantly casual in how she tells Paul’s story, and that the way the movie skips from dance space to dance space, track to track, and love affair to love affair can leave you wondering if there’s any “there” there. Who is this man? What does he do for a living again? But Hansen-Løve — like her partner, Olivier Assayas in Summer Hours and The Clouds of Sils Maria — has a near-supernatural instinct for finding the right form (and degree of formlessness) to induce a sense of transience, of something being lost before it even fully registers. Her last film was called Goodbye, First Love, and Eden is another long, long good-bye.
Hansen-Løve does tip her hand on the subject of loss with the title, no? Eden is the name of a local music scene magazine (glimpsed briefly), but it also denotes the paradise in which Paul — who’s based on Hansen-Løve’s brother, Sven, with whom she wrote the script — finds himself when he’s in, literally, the groove. His religion is “New York Garage with a Parisian twist ... like House but more disco.” Early in the film, he enters a tunnel and moves toward the source of the music, his body visible only between strobes, the electro beats at once arousing and relaxing — hypnotizing. He and his buddy, a high-strung illustrator named Cyril (Roman Kolinka), create a duo called “Cheers,” becoming famous for the magical “French touch.” Despite the efforts of a swinging radio guru named Arnaud (Vincent Macaigne), they don’t see much money. But it’s clear that spinning vinyl records makes Paul feel a kind of centripetal force, as if he’s pulling the world into his orbit.
I think the triumph of the film itself is its centrifugal force, its dispersed palette, its constant movement away from a center — the reverse direction of those records on Paul’s Technics turntable. The first of his girlfriends is in the process of leaving him before we even see them together. She’s an American named Julia, played by Greta Gerwig in a hard, low-voiced style I find a huge relief from her usual ditheriness. Julia thinks of Paul as the little French boy with whom she’s spending wonderful time before she has to go back to New York and grow up. The hole she leaves is eventually filled by Louise (Pauline Etienne), a sprightly, short-haired gamine who’s happy to follow Paul from gig to gig in lieu of working. But impermanence eats at her, too. Cyril, the other half of Cheers, is more and more angry and out of sorts, both sublimating and wallowing in his despair with a series of illustrations for a book he calls Song of the Machine. Paul’s mother (Arsinee Khanjian) sounds grim warnings about the real world on which Paul is turning his back, as well as his dwindling finances. But it will be a while in Eden before there’s any sense of urgency.
For most of the film, Hansen-Løve’s tempo is glancing, her eye restless. She’ll settle for a while on Paul and his friends as they throw back drinks or snort cocaine and then move on, the soundtrack picking you up and fuzzing you out. What do we hear? Most prominently Daft Punk, who are also characters in the film (played by actors) in a running joke in which they keep being denied entrance to clubs. (Paul thinks the duo is going nowhere.) My press kit lists 42 separate tracks by the likes of Arnold Jarvis, Juliet Roberts, MK, and the Style Council. The throbbing, floating, omnipresent music — inducing dreaminess, transcendence — is a counterpoint to the increasingly stark economics of Paul’s life. As tastes change and the crowd moves on, he finds himself addicted, in nightmarish debt, and alone. And at last Hansen Løve gives us our narrative bearings.
In one respect, it’s too little too late: De Givry (who was also in Assayas’s Something in the Air) is a non-actor, handsome, serious, and comfortable being observed but never particularly expressive. That’s obviously what Hansen Løve wanted, but I can’t help thinking the movie’s amorphousness would have worked better with a more definite actor — someone who didn’t disappear so fully into the scene. Eden has a remarkable orbit, but it spins around a void.