Mia Hansen-Løve's lucid and shimmering movie memoir Eden traces the sloping rise and even more meandering fall of a French techno DJ across some 20 years. Eden isn't even about anything as broad as electronic dance music: It deals largely with the specific techno subgenre known as garage — at one point, the movie's half-loping, half-stumbling hero, Paul (played by Félix de Givry), tries to explain the music's finer distinctions to a new acquaintance, rambling on about its genesis in New York's Paradise Garage in the early 1980s at the hands of visionary DJ Larry Levan. Those names will either mean something to you or they won't, but they're everything to Paul. He's a prisoner of his own purity and generally a pain in the ass — but still, we feel for him. And that's how Eden hooks you: Even if you know nothing about techno, let alone garage, Hansen-Løve's exploration of the ways music can nourish you or swallow you whole is instantly, perhaps painfully, recognizable. A quiet, raggedly beautiful mini-epic, Eden isn't a success story; it's a failure story. But it's also a glittering acknowledgement of the fact that failing is the only path toward growing.
Hansen-Løve co-wrote Eden with her brother, Sven Hansen-Løve, and though it roughly traces his own experience as an aspiring and ultimately semi-successful DJ, it's really a roadmap to the experience of a certain generation of young people in France, from the 1990s into the early 2000s. When we first meet de Givry's Paul, circa 1992, he's a young student just hanging out with a group of friends: There's low-key Stan (Hugo Conzelmann) — the two will eventually form a semi-successful DJ duo. Cyril (Roman Kolinka) is a brilliant but depressive illustrator. Louise (the effervescently deadpan Pauline Etienne) is a sprite of a girl who buzzes around Paul like a nonchalant bug, until the two finally give in and fall in love.
Greta Gerwig appears in a small role as an American adrift in Paris. Paul has an affair with her, one that breaks his heart, to the extent that it can be broken — he is, for the first section of the film, a somewhat recessive kid whose emotions can't be easily read. Paul's wider circle of acquaintances includes two guys who, in 1992, were just starting out in a scrappy little electronica outfit called Darlin'. "They make sounds all night with weird machines," one character explains. Later, they'll become Daft Punk, but for now, they're just two scruffy Parisian kids sans robot helmets (played by superb Thomas and Guy-Man lookalikes Vincent Lacoste and Arnaud Azoulay).
Hansen-Løve captures the vibe of this early to mid-1990s French techno scene in marvelous, intimate detail. Paul and his friends go to a rave held on the grounds of an old fort; at one point they walk through what looks like an ancient stone tunnel, lined with arcs of bluish-white light. It's a place of enchantment, a spot where dreams can surely be made reality (with the help of a little Ecstasy). The pulse of the music — seductive, ephemeral, unhummable — is a guiding force, like a beckoning hand made of smoke. No wonder Paul falls for it, hard. Spinning records for a floorful of dancers is all he wants to do: We see his hand guiding the stylus onto the disc's surface — this was a special era when turntables had become a prized rarity, after having been ubiquitous for years. (Today they're ubiquitous again, marvels of old-school technology that, with luck, will never die out.)
But music isn't always kind to Paul. In fact, it's rarely kind at all. Now and then, wonderful things happen: He has a great time on a trip to New York with Louise and several of his cohorts, including Arnaud, played by the beguiling Vincent Macaigne, a good-natured hedonist (and Showgirls fanatic) who seems to have been born with a receding hairline. Paul and Stan become successful enough to host their own techno radio show. But Paul can't make any money. His mother, played by the always wonderful Arsinée Khanjian, worries about his drug use — she doesn't know the half of it — and the fact that he's running through whatever money she gives him at an alarming rate. He's a promising literature student, but he drops out of school. Burning through his 20s and then lurching into his 30s, he plunges deeper into debt. Women come and go, even as his friends build more stable relationships and have families.
Eden — its title refers both to a longed-for paradise and to an underground French techno zine of the 1990s — is both a grand and gentle piece of work, an expansion of the great promise Hansen-Løve showed with earlier films like 2009's Father of My Children. The picture is sometimes a bit too languid — it sprawls in places where it should probably sprint. But its hold becomes stronger scene by scene. De Givry's Paul is at first maddening in his stubbornness and his snobbery. But when it becomes clear how lost he is — and, later, how much he yearns to find his way forward, even though he doesn't quite know how — you can't help but hope for the best for him. He knows the music inside and out, but he can't feel the spaces between the beats. He hasn't yet figured out that that's where most of life is lived.
Directed by Mia Hansen-Løve. Written by Mia Hansen-Løve and Sven Hansen-Løve. Starring Félix de Givry, Pauline Etienne, Vincent Macaigne, Hugo Conzelmann, Roman Kolinka, and Greta Gerwig.