The Boy Racer
By Adam Nayman

Dir. Mia Hansen-Love, France, Broad Green Pictures

Time is a weapon in the movies of Mia Hansen-Love. The gaping narrative holes in the middles of All Is Forgiven, The Father of My Children, and Goodbye First Love are exit wounds, portals through which key characters suddenly escape (or are forcibly taken), leaving the protagonists who’ve previously leaned on them in varying states of limbo and loneliness. As a narrative strategy, it’s devastatingly effective, if also at this point a little bit familiar. It’s the go-to move of a writer-director whose gift for creating fleeting sensations could also be taken as a sign of discomfort with traditional dramatic presentation. Faced with the sorts of pivotal moments that are usually placed at the center of other movies, Hansen-Love excuses herself from the action, as if she can only truly find her bearings—if not her comfort zone—amidst a bad situation’s aftermath.

Eden, Hansen-Love’s fourth, longest, and most ambitious feature to date, wrings subtle variations on these tactics. But it’s also extremely close to its predecessors in ways that may lead some critics—and some fans—to feel they’re getting a case of diminishing returns. Co-written by the director’s brother Sven Love and supposedly based on his experiences as a pioneering DJ in the halcyon heyday of French EDM (electronic dance music) in the early 1990s, the film features a slim-hipped and magazine-pretty young ensemble (shades of Goodbye First Love) and a script clipped neatly in two parts; there is a mid-film death that haunts the proceedings like a shade; key information is conveyed in an epistolary manner (à la All Is Forgiven); the film is littered with pop-cultural totems and references that suggest a shared frame of reference (and taste) between the characters and the filmmaker.

What Eden has a lot more of than its forebears is exposition, and this is the stuff that might throw viewers—or maybe tune them out entirely. Paul (Félix de Givry) and Stan (Hugo Conzelmann) are a pair of DJs who hope to break into the house music scene by mashing up American influences and local ones—a plan they explicitly describe in conversation with their peers (who, in a nod to historical verisimilitude that turns into a running joke, include the then-unknown Parisian pranksters behind Daft Punk). The disparity between Eden’s sublime, basically wordless opening sequence, which shows a group of kids wandering through the woods after a party on a harbored submarine—inventively filmed in hushed, wee-small-hours light by cinematographer Denis Lenoir, whose work is exceptional throughout—and the stilted exchanges of the next few scenes is considerable and puzzling. A generous reading might be that the characters’ ambitions are so apparent and unapologetic as to seem facile (or that somewhere, a subtitler was half-asleep at the switch), but it seems more likely that Hansen-Love is trying—a little too hard—to make sure we understand exactly where and when we are, and what’s at stake.

So what exactly is at stake here? Eden is not the first of Hansen-Love’s films to describe a creative scene—The Father of My Children paralleled the death of a beloved patriarch with the decline of the French film industry, and All Is Forgiven and The Father of My Children orbited poets and painters, respectively—but the epic scale of its narrative, which spans 1992 to 2013, suggests a historical perspective, a portrait etched in hindsight. Already, the film has garnered comparisons to the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, partially because Paul’s ultimate lack of success—he goes from being overshadowed by Daft Punk to slipping down the bill to falling out of rotation altogether—mirrors that of Oscar Isaac’s Odyssean-Sisyphean schlemiel, and partially because of the painstaking recreations of certain seminal moments. To wit: the house-party unveiling of Daft Punk’s grinding, undeniable “Da Funk” feels like a primal scene of sorts much in the same way as Bob Dylan’s (mostly just overheard) rendition of “Farewell” does at the conclusion of the Coens’ film.

To return to the question of stakes: some might say the film is uninvolving because they believe the politicized American folk revival of the late sixties is more “important” or influential than the rise of EDM. It’s irrelevant, because Eden isn’t pushing that sort of agenda. Like Olivier Assayas in Something in the Air, Hansen-Love is smart enough to show that adolescent collectives are at least as much about the rush of experiencing something—be it a rave or a protest rally—in close physical proximity to one’s peers as the thing itself. Rather than trying to illustrate the music as a site of widespread aesthetic upheaval, she emphasizes its more insular qualities—which includes the appeal of having a lot of strangers congregate in approval of something you arrived at first. (A scene where Paul’s pal forces his friends to watch a DVD of Showgirls offers a hint about how the filmmaker feels about tastemaking). If there’s a crucial difference between Eden and Inside Llewyn Davis’ depiction of musical movements, it’s this: the Coens stranded their protagonist at the precipice of a cultural sea change, while implying that he was not wanted on the voyage, whereas Hansen-Love has conceived Paul as someone who is swept along by the current, en route to being washed-up—he’s something less than a has-been, yet more than a never-was.

Paul’s marginality is figured via de Givry’s largely passive performance, which could easily be mistaken for bad acting except that its affectlesness is carefully calibrated. Just as the Coens understood that folk is a musical mode that calls upon artists to slip inside certain familiar characters and archetypes (something Llewyn has trouble doing), Hansen-Love (and her brother) get that EDM is basically faceless music, and that its most assiduous practitioners (i.e. the perennially masked duo of Daft Punk) subordinate their personas to their beats. Paul’s fetching, smoothed-over blandness makes him an ideal DJ and an attractive figure—and indeed, a lot of Eden’s plot involves his long list of hookups over the years, including his on-and-off-and-on relationship with pixieish Louise (Pauline Etienne). Their chase-or-be-chased courtship is summed up beautifully in a montage of Paul pursuing her through the different areas in a public water park—it’s swift, witty, erotic, and exciting, a detour worthy of Claire Denis.

Paul’s fecklessness is also what keeps an audience from connecting to him emotionally, at least in a conventional way. Once it’s clear that none of the other characters will ever come into focus (Stan is barely a presence once he’s introduced, for instance), the viewer is forced to either accept Paul as the main attraction or else become alienated from the proceedings, and while Hansen-Love deserves credit for encouraging that sort of ambivalence it’s a risky decision to commit to that kind of passivity. Instead of truly leaving his mark on the music or the scene—the mutation of which from private to public space, and from a hobby to a business, is glimpsed in a sometimes frustratingly sidelong manner—Paul seems carried along on its rhythms, which despite the pounding volume and sometimes dynamic arrangements, are essentially circular and repetitive: a loop that as the years go by begins to seem more like a noose. (As Morrissey might say, “Hang the DJ.”)

Eden occasionally makes certain concessions to nostalgia: that first scene of the youths slinking back in a daze seems wrought from some kind of great generational unconscious. But the film doesn’t mistake melancholy for mourning—for Paul or for his milieu—and it doesn’t get sentimental about the fate of either. If anything, Hansen-Love retains a measure of critical distance, heightened by her decision to not have Paul age on the outside (the Myspace Page of Dorian Gray). There’s also plenty of rueful humor to go around, as when our hero returns to his old stomping grounds to find that his place of pride has been recently filled by a bored-looking nymph behind a MacBook Pro—a moment of existential recognition and acceptance.

Where the early scenes of Eden feel on the nose, the back half is filled with precisely the sorts of glancing-yet-wounding blows that are Hansen-Love’s specialty. (Another one for the memory banks: Paul, curled up in bed like a 34-year-old child, complaining to his mother.) The power of such moments suggests that the overdetermined setups of the early scenes can be reconciled within an overall design whereby dialogue and dramatic incident gradually fall away, replaced by the half-cozy, half-unsettling feeling of a life that’s being lived mostly through muscle memory. And this is finally the big difference—and the big leap—of Eden, which doesn’t have a temporal hole at its center but rather a character through whom time passes like a sieve. The final scene, which centers on nothing more fateful than a dry-erase board—an item the film gradually imbues with highly symbolic qualities—is also its best, evoking John Lennon’s line that “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans” and implying that the same thing goes for death, too.