Mia Hansen-Løve, Eden, 2014, color, sound, 131 minutes. Paul and Louise (Félix de Givry and Pauline Etienne).


IN MIA HANSEN-LØVE’S EDEN (2014), a story based on her brother Sven’s life as a DJ, communication often gets lost in “the mix of machines and voices” that, as another DJ says early on, make garage and house music special. The year is 1992; the city is Paris. A teenage Paul (the very decent Félix de Givry) grows up in the night. Entranced by the flavor of club jam that will come to be known as “French Touch,” Paul all but lives in basements and warehouses, returning to his family’s apartment only to sleep. He dreams of doing something like Daft Punk, so he and his friend Stan (Hugo Conzelmann) become a duo named Cheers, like the bar. Their artist friend Cyril (Roman Kolinka) draws them a logo, their promoter friend Arnaud (Vincent Macaigne) spreads the word, and Paul gets a bachelor pad and turntables instead of going to college. Soon it’s the night of their debut. The year is 1994. In the morning, Paul comes home to a note from his American girlfriend Julia (played by Greta Gerwig at half-speed) saying she’s sorry, but she “had to go back.” Since we already know that Julia has a husband in Brooklyn, the narrative purpose of the note isn’t to explain why she’s leaving; with no other exceptions, goodbyes are nonexistent in Eden. The note is here to leave Paul in silence long enough, for once, to get a message.

What the message is depends on the angle you watch from. If you’re older, it may be that life goes on outside the party, even when the music stops the world. Or that at some point it does become too late to go back, as Julia knows and Paul either doesn’t or ignores. If you’re younger, it may be that nothing pure lasts. Underground music is such a pure thing, and first love is another. So is ecstasy, the dangers of which are warned by Le Monde and Paul’s mother, but his drug of choice is cocaine. Without ever saying so, he seems to dread the irreversible loss of the present—or control over the present—that comes with ecstasy, and to embrace as protection the permanent awakeness of coke.

Awakeness is not like mindfulness, though, and if Paul doesn’t get talkative on drugs, nor does he get introspective. Lyrics like “I was a man who didn’t have any direction” are supposed to stand in for Paul’s epiphanies, but it’s unclear whether he’s having them. Eden is a diary in that it follows a single person through linear but not continuous time, somehow crossing two decades in the space of two hours; it is also an antidiary in that it doesn’t stick to red-letter days, skipping across the high points of a life, preferring to settle in the lulls. (Maybe I mean it’s the anti-Facebook time line.)

Sarah Manguso laments, in her new book Ongoingness (2015), the way she used to diarize or not: “So much apparent nothing I ignored, that I treated as empty time between the memorable moments.” Ongoingness is a memoir of a diary, which sounds dementedly meta—she’s writing about her life spent writing about her life?—until you learn the diary is twenty-five years and eight hundred thousand words long. It’s more like a memoir of addiction, written with the terminal honesty, or ethical commitment to not romanticizing, that’s so often praised in the genre. Her addiction, of course, is the diary; she herself calls it “a vice.”

Paul’s habits are easier to see as vices, yet his addiction to coke is also an addiction to making time—to working more, which means staying up later, which means staying up later still to party, which means working more to afford more means of working, staying up, and partying. Mostly Paul is happy when he’s working, which is to say working for himself. When a lover who’s also a DJ asks him to come see her gig, the way he says “maybe” for “no” is breezily cold and self-absorbed. “No hot water, but you buy Paul Smith shirts?” the same girl asks over breakfast. “Priorities,” he responds, kidding but not.

Halfway through Eden, in the summer of 2001, Cheers play PS1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS1) in New York. Paul goes to see a pregnant Julia, who tells him, with her husband in the shower, that she wrote him all these letters she never sent. Louise (Pauline Etienne), who has now been Paul’s (very French) girlfriend for several years, completely freaks out about what she means to him. Offscreen, one of their friends commits suicide; Paul and Stan find out at an electronic music station, moments before going live. They go live anyway. There is an awful beat of radio silence before the song comes.

At home in Paris, Daft Punk are suddenly everywhere. The years are 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006, exploding on screen in a half-minute montage of parties and boats, and then the second half of Eden begins with the fall. It’s a very slow fall. Actually, the second half has the same exact pacing as the first, but because a fall is supposed to be so much faster than a rise, this one feels torturously slower. The symmetry of the film becomes predictable, as it substitutes for the peaks of euphoria a series of flatly significant “after” shots that mirror the ones “before.” Colorful balloons are filled and float to the ceiling for the first Cheers album party at Respect; eleven years later, after another regular but unsuccessful Cheers night, black and white balloons are pricked one by one. On two separate occasions, a generation apart, Daft Punk are denied at a club because no one, including the bouncer, knows what they look like under their helmets. It was sort of funny the first time, but not the second. Ditto a lot of things, actually: Paul’s money problems, the lies to his mother, the lazy way he often has with women. “Now I won’t make the same mistakes, time and time again,” sings Julie McKnight for the Kings of Tomorrow in “Finally,” Paul standing motionless in a crowd.

Even when he stops playing music the clubs want and starts playing music at weddings, Paul can’t stop playing music, the same way Manguso couldn’t stop writing a diary that no one will read. Paul needs the money, but the money is also a ruse. He doesn’t want to lose his place in time. Only after a drug-induced breakdown does he quit, find a job, and join a writing workshop, where he meets yet another young woman (they never get any older in twenty years). She gives him a book of poems by Robert Creeley, and that’s how Eden ends, with the suggestion that Paul was to Daft Punk as Creeley was to William Carlos Williams, or else with a poem that just fits.

“You understand so much in life that nobody explains to you,” Hansen-Løve tells the writer Durga Chew-Bose in Filmmaker magazine. “I try to make movies like life, where nothing is really said, and it’s there without needing to be explained.” Her camera is shy and hyperattentive yet usually easy to ignore; her script, which her brother helped write, is sometimes so light it’s like gossip. “I want to write sentences that seem as if no one wrote them,” a friend tells Manguso, who in turn puts the sentence in her book without naming the friend. Hansen-Løve, likewise, makes scenes as if no one is watching them. Yet with all the time Paul spends in emptiness, it becomes an emptiness as ornate, as detailed and unreal, as a cathedral’s, where neither machines nor voices account for the music you can hear.

Sarah Nicole Prickett

Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden opens Friday, June 19, at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York.