French director Mia Hansen-Løve is one of the most ambitious filmmakers working today, trading in themes that are nearly universal yet difficult to articulate. Goodbye First Love (2011) isn't about the loss of innocence so much as how one feels losing his innocence. Employing a rich, subtle cinematic language, one rooted in jump cuts and confident, sweeping camera movements, Hansen-Løve renders almost palpable the sensation of time slipping away. Her fourth feature, Eden, does this in the service of yet another complicated emotion—the longing for transcendence. The hero, Paul (Félix de Givry in his acting debut), spends almost two decades searching for self-actualization through music—specifically "garage," a subgenre of French and American techno—though Eden is less about him than about the life and death of his dream. As Paul says of a favorite song, the movie hovers between euphoria and melancholy.
Eden follows a narrative arc familiar from other musician biographies (just as Goodbye First Love superficially resembles other youth romances), but it never plays like a conventional biopic. Hansen-Løve flits between crucial events and seemingly trivial details, drawing little distinction between the two; watching her movie feels like wandering through someone's memories, and in fact Eden is based closely on the recollections of her older brother Sven (who cowrote the script), a respected garage DJ from the mid-90s to the late aughts. The movie spans 21 years, beginning with Paul in his mid-teens, as he discovers garage, and ending with him in his late 30s, a few years after he's quit DJing. Eden may feel like an epic, but only for its density of detail. Hansen-Løve plunges the viewer into Paul's world, rarely providing any background information about the music he plays or the people he meets—call it an epic made from the inside out.
That design is fitting, because the world Eden covers is small even by techno standards. Garage, which combines electronic music and soul-style vocal melodies, never caught on as other techno forms did, yet it generated a passionate fan base and plenty of brilliant practitioners. Hansen-Løve's approach allows the viewer to appreciate how garage devotees immerse themselves in the music, and her style also conveys the bustle of Paul's wide circle of friends, lovers, and collaborators. One gets to know a variety of fascinating characters, all of whom steal the spotlight from him at some point: Stan, his comparatively level-headed musical partner; Arnaud, a pathetic, would-be ladies' man; Cyril, a gifted but depressive artist who designs flyers for Paris garage acts; and the various groupies and fellow travelers who pass through Paul's bed.
What brings these people together is their shared love of the music, which, for some of them, has the force of a religious devotion. When Paul, attending an underground rave in the early 90s, first hears the music that will dominate his life, Hansen-Løve presents his discovery as a spiritual epiphany, complete with hallucinations; the morning after the party, Paul finds the DJ who played the track in question and makes his first inroads into the subculture. He wants to relive the sensation from the previous night, and therein lies Eden's tragic undercurrent: one day into Paul's career, his most important musical moment is already behind him. Like an addict, Paul will pursue bigger and bigger buzzes—larger crowds, more lavish parties—as the constant stimulation dulls his senses (not surprisingly, he succumbs to drug addiction too).
Throughout Eden, Hansen-Løve finds ways to convey Paul's garage-induced rapture and his simultaneous disappointment that the rapture can't last. The movie's first half, covering Paul's teens and 20s, is marked by nearly constant camera movement, creating a lyrical sense of progression similar to that of his favorite songs. Hansen-Løve frequently carries over songs from one scene to the next, suggesting that the music has an internal continuity independent of the plot, and she allows the narrative focus within a scene to drift from Paul to one of the supporting characters, making him seem like a guest in his own story, carried along by events as well as music. Her unpredictable edits move the story forward by weeks or years without warning, making you feel constantly that you've just missed something.
In the swirl of events one keeps track of time by following certain details that repeat from scene to scene. Near the beginning of the movie, Cyril draws a self-portrait on a dry-erase board in Paul's apartment, and his drawing becomes a poignant reminder of youth and creative energy as the characters succumb to decadence and despair. When Paul and his friends congregate at a fancy restaurant to commemorate the death of a peer, they assume nearly the same seating arrangement as they did earlier while celebrating Paul and Stan's first big show. Indeed many plot developments in Eden, both major and minor, repeat over the course of the film; the repetition is almost always less joyful than the initial occurrence, conveying Paul's longing for an irretrievable past.
Another way Hansen-Løve marks time is through Paul's love affairs, which leave him increasingly dissatisfied and mirror his growing disillusionment with music. In his early 20s he has a brief fling with Julia (Greta Gerwig), an American writer whom he considers the love of his life. After she ditches Paris for New York, he pursues an on-again, off-again relationship with the wayward Louise (Pauline Etienne), who seems to love him more than he loves her; even after their relationship dissolves and she has children with another man, they keep in contact, reminding each other of their shared golden days. In the new century, as Paul's music career wanes, he hooks up with an upper-class party girl (Laura Smet) and then a spoiled cokehead from the United Arab Emirates (Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani in a galvanic performance). These women clearly correspond to Paul's evolving personality, yet as imagined by Hansen-Løve and her talented cast, each registers as a fully formed individual with her own longings and disappointments. One wishes to spend more time with all of them—but as with so much else in the film, they vanish too soon. v