Tuesday, October 28, 2014

AFI Fest 2014: "Eden"

Director: Mia Hansen-Love
Runtime 131 minutes

Spanning three decades and featuring a fine cast of largely unknown performers, Mia Hansen-Love's fourth feature captures a musical movement in light brushstrokes rather than minute, pointillist details. The rise and semi-fall of one of French house music's eminent DJ's may seem like an overly niche story, but Eden's big canvas is more than a fictionalized music biopic. Like Olivier Assayas' Something in the Air, it's a tale of youth in revolt. This revolution, however, takes place in clubs and dance halls, and strives to work within a system to bring about something new, rather than tear down what's currently in place (make music, not molotov cocktails). 

Eden takes its title from a 1992 fanzine about electronic and garage music, but it also opens in a more literal eden as well. After a night out in a party on a boat, young Paul (Felix de Givry) wanders into the nearby forest, unable to get the music he's just heard out of his head. Waking up to grey skies, he joins up with his friend Cyril (Roman Kolinka), and asks the party's DJ about a particular entrancing track. The Eden where Paul's journey begins is a place where the young teen discovers the path he'd like to set himself on. Dance music may be tempting to Paul's eager young mind, but it's hardly a forbidden fruit. 

So often, the club scene is presented as a blaring, sweaty, grimy environment for coke and ecstasy dealers and their prey. But, since Eden is set at the outset of France's club movement, Hansen-Love has captured the party scenes in a less hyperbolic manner. The thudding, thumping beats of the music may blast out of the speakers and get your rib cage to tremble, but the movement of the bodies on screen is anything but extreme. The young coterie of clubbers are there to dance, talk, and simply get lost in the music. It's a communal experience as much as it is a sonic one. It's a naturalistic depiction, and Hansen-Love deserves immense credit for never deviating from this idea. 

If Eden does one thing flawlessly, it's immersing the viewer in its party scenes. With the aid of an expertly-curated soundtrack (featuring more than 40 songs), the film breezes through its two hour plus runtime. Characters are constantly on the move, whether its in a rush to set up for a gig, or simply sharing a walk or cab ride home in the dark. The sharp editing from Marion Monnier keeps scenes uncluttered, and never allows the story's momentum to flag, even with the title cards that signpost how far along the film is in its story. 

Like much of the music in the background, though, Eden becomes less distinct once it's over. You're left with the basic idea of certain moments, characters, and songs, without being able to point to many of them specifically. The pacing keeps the film in line with Paul's go-go-go mindset, and this certainly works on the surface. Yet as Paul starts to forget about the non-musical aspects of his life, Eden starts to forget to care about too much of the rest of the ensemble and their stories. 

For starters, there's an overwhelming number of names and faces introduced and then dropped, with only a few being worth the time. Part of what made Something in the Air work so well was its ability to balance its three or four main characters with a broader ensemble. Eden sets itself up in a similar manner, but then stretches its tapestry out too far. Paul's touchy relationship with his girlfriend Louise (Pauline Etienne) is one of the few threads that actually feels as though its taken to completion. On the other hand, Cyril's involvement comes to an end far too soon, and his eventual absence robs Eden of some dramatic tension. Cyril's gradual slide into depression turns him into an intriguing semi-antagonist, but his story is promptly jettisoned once Paul and his band go to New York. 
Meanwhile, characters who stick around far longer also prove to be far less interesting. Like Daft Punk, Paul's electro group Cheers is made of two DJs. Though Paul's partner in crime is present in countless scenes, his personality is just about non-existent. Indie star cameos from Greta Gerwig and Brady Corbet do little to enhance the on screen character dynamics. 

Hansen-Love's script (co-written with her brother Sven, a former DJ) invites so many people into its non-stop party, but it's only a good host to a select few. By the time Eden gets to the obligatory struggle-with-drugs stage of the story, even Paul starts to feel a bit thin as the ostensible protagonist. His attraction to house/electronic/garage music is efficiently explained at the beginning, but his drive to pursue a career as a DJ is never delved into. The struggles of putting together shows, not to mention the financial toll of his career path, is barely touched upon. Whether it's the coke problem or the financial woes, the issues in Paul's life don't feel terrible pressing until they actually need to be dealt with. Hansen-Love's style is commendable and works a few small miracles, but the final scene is too distant and lacks a convincing perspective. Paul, and the rest of Eden's cast, simply aren't compelling enough to break through Eden's immense wall of sound. 

Grade: B-

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