by Elliot Davies
The story of the rise and rise of French electronic music as witnessed from the fringe – Eden gets its UK preview at the 2015 Derby Film Festival.
For many people, Eden will be a nostalgic hit. The film follows 18 years or so in the life of Paul Vallée – part of a DJ duo known as Cheers, who are credited with popularising French house music.
When it comes to music, any discussion of genre will inevitably get muddled, as sounds and scenes tend to bleed into one another. Throughout the film, French house is frequently referred to as “garage”. This garage is worlds apart from the earnest grime of UK garage. It involves soulful vocals undercut by mellow techno pulses, which means that it sounds almost identical to house music.
So what makes “French house” French? Only those who have spent significant chunks of their lives in clubs and on pills will be able to tell you the exact difference between the various genres featured here. But suffice to say that anyone who listened to “dance music” between 1992 and 2006 will be aglow with a warm fuzziness as they nod along to the soundtrack of Eden.
The film opens in some murky woods on the outskirts of Paris, 1992. Our hero, Paul, calls a “rave hotline”, giving him the address of his next party. They dance to The Orb in the middle of nowhere, and have breathless conversations about Frankie Knuckles.
It’s here that, whilst waiting for a train, we catch our first glimpse of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo. In 1992 they’re playing “punk music with a disco edge” in an outfit called Darlin’, but by 1995 they’ll be known throughout the world as Daft Punk.
When we catch up with Paul in 1995, he’s asking his sister to identify house piano chords whilst his mum torments him with newspaper clippings about the dangers of ecstasy, chastising him for his ambitions to become a “DG”. It must be said that Paul’s mum – her name is never mentioned – is one of the most engaging and sympathetic characters in the whole film. Whilst the remainder of Eden often feels like an endless procession of lines and parties, her scenes provide necessary grounding, allowing the film to explore a common but compelling theme – the reckless perils of following your dreams.
At a house party, Daft Punk drop Da Funk, and it’s a moment. The song is described as “la disco moderne”, but someone is quick to dismiss it, insisting that they preferred them when they were making techno. Anyone who sneered at the smooth pop Daft Punk explored on Random Access Memories take note: people have apparently been scoffing at their experiments since day one.
Cleverly, this party at which Daft Punk choose to unleash their monster is a costume party. So even though they’re not yet robots, they’re still wearing masks.
The rise of Daft Punk, though, takes place in the background. This is very much Paul’s story, and we’re there for what feels like every single step of the journey.
The problem is, Paul’s really quite boring. He’s pleasant enough, and Félix de Givry’s performance is more than adequate, but he’s frustratingly surrounded by people who would have made for a much more engaging character study.
Beyond his abilities to mix a track and work a crowd, Paul comes across as vapid and numb. Much more interesting are his friends. Besides messrs Bangalter and de Homem-Christo, there’s Arnaud, the endearing hypochondriac. There’s Louise, his volatile love interest. There’s Cyril, the tormented cartoonist whose story ends in tragedy. There’s Julia, the American writer, brilliantly played by Greta Gerwig.
Eden could have followed the fortunes of any one of these people without losing sight of its central themes, and without fundamentally altering its structure and story. Were Paul relegated the secondary character he feels like, this could have been a punchy hit. But instead, we’re stuck in Paul’s world. And in Paul’s world, it constantly feels like everyone else is having more fun than you.
We’re told that Paul’s music is revolutionary, but we’re never shown precisely why. We’re told that Paul’s clubnights are the hottest tickets in town, but they often feel like disappointing washouts.
Things really get derailed in the second half, when the action jumps forward to the 21st century. By now, Daft Punk are interstellar megastars. But for Paul, life becomes a seemingly endless succession of murky parties and line after line of coke.
His ex girlfriends get lives of their own. His friends die or drift away. Paul DJs at a wedding. Yet throughout all this, besides a couple of slightly unconvincing breakdowns, his expression remains a blank slate. He just gets on with things, which makes the film’s latter half feel interminable. A pity – the elegiac conclusion thus loses its edge.
It’s hard to deny the quality of the soundtrack, though. And despite her uninspiring lead, director Mia Hansen-Løve has an impressive eye for detail when it comes to chronicling long-term relationships. She also captures the energy of Paul’s more successful parties. Club scenes in films often come across as stilted and contrived, but Hansen-Løve effortlessly bottles the electricity in the air. In that it made me really, really want to go out, Eden can be said to be successful.
The rise of French house feels like it could be an interesting story. What a shame that Eden chooses to focus on one of its minor players – or if Paul’s role really was integral, it’s never made quite clear just why. As such, Eden feels about 40 minutes too long, and even when it’s at its most energetic, it’s hard to shake the feeling that there’s something much bigger happening elsewhere.
Eden is released in the UK on July 24, 2015.