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 whoâ€™ve previously leaned on them in varying states of limbo and loneliness. As a narrative strategy, itâ€™s devastatingly effective, if also at this point a little bit familiar. Itâ€™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 bearingsâ€”if not her comfort zoneâ€”amidst a bad situationâ€™s aftermath.
Eden, Hansen-Loveâ€™s fourth, longest, and most ambitious feature to date, wrings subtle variations on these tactics. But itâ€™s also extremely close to its predecessors in ways that may lead some criticsâ€”and some fansâ€”to feel theyâ€™re getting a case of diminishing returns. Co-written by the directorâ€™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 (Ă 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 viewersâ€”or maybe tune them out entirely. Paul (FĂ©lix 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 onesâ€”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 Edenâ€™s sublime, basically wordless opening sequence, which shows a group of kids wandering through the woods after a party on a harbored submarineâ€”inventively filmed in hushed, wee-small-hours light by cinematographer Denis Lenoir, whose work is exceptional throughoutâ€”and the stilted exchanges of the next few scenes is considerable and puzzling. A generous reading might be that the charactersâ€™ 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 tryingâ€”a little too hardâ€”to make sure we understand exactly where and when we are, and whatâ€™s at stake.
So what exactly is at stake here? Eden is not the first of Hansen-Loveâ€™s films to describe a creative sceneâ€”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, respectivelyâ€”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 brothersâ€™ Inside Llewyn Davis, partially because Paulâ€™s ultimate lack of successâ€”he goes from being overshadowed by Daft Punk to slipping down the bill to falling out of rotation altogetherâ€”mirrors that of Oscar Isaacâ€™s Odyssean-Sisyphean schlemiel, and partially because of the painstaking recreations of certain seminal moments. To wit: the house-party unveiling of Daft Punkâ€™s grinding, undeniable â€śDa Funkâ€ť feels like a primal scene of sorts much in the same way as Bob Dylanâ€™s (mostly just overheard) rendition of â€śFarewellâ€ť does at the conclusion of the Coensâ€™ 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 â€śimportantâ€ť or influential than the rise of EDM. Itâ€™s irrelevant, because Eden isnâ€™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 somethingâ€”be it a rave or a protest rallyâ€”in close physical proximity to oneâ€™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 qualitiesâ€”which includes the appeal of having a lot of strangers congregate in approval of something you arrived at first. (A scene where Paulâ€™s pal forces his friends to watch a DVD of Showgirls offers a hint about how the filmmaker feels about tastemaking). If thereâ€™s a crucial difference between Eden and Inside Llewyn Davisâ€™ depiction of musical movements, itâ€™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-upâ€”heâ€™s something less than a has-been, yet more than a never-was.
Paulâ€™s marginality is figured via de Givryâ€™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. Paulâ€™s fetching, smoothed-over blandness makes him an ideal DJ and an attractive figureâ€”and indeed, a lot of Edenâ€™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 parkâ€”itâ€™s swift, witty, erotic, and exciting, a detour worthy of Claire Denis.
Paulâ€™s fecklessness is also what keeps an audience from connecting to him emotionally, at least in a conventional way. Once itâ€™s clear that none of the other characters will ever come into focus (Stan is barely a presence once heâ€™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 itâ€™s a risky decision to commit to that kind of passivity. Instead of truly leaving his mark on the music or the sceneâ€”the mutation of which from private to public space, and from a hobby to a business, is glimpsed in a sometimes frustratingly sidelong mannerâ€”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, â€śHang the DJ.â€ť)
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 doesnâ€™t mistake melancholy for mourningâ€”for Paul or for his milieuâ€”and it doesnâ€™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). Thereâ€™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 Proâ€”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-Loveâ€™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 thatâ€™s being lived mostly through muscle memory. And this is finally the big differenceâ€”and the big leapâ€”of Eden, which doesnâ€™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 boardâ€”an item the film gradually imbues with highly symbolic qualitiesâ€”is also its best, evoking John Lennonâ€™s line that â€ślife is what happens when youâ€™re busy making other plansâ€ť and implying that the same thing goes for death, too.