Notes on Eden
In the immediate aftermath of a club night in a converted submarine set on a canal in a forest, a group of people is walking through the dark. In the pre-dawn haze they are shapes and voices. Later, in the daylight, they will be young, good-looking, wearing parkas. A cigarette is lit. A girl with an English accent describes another party, one that’s already happened. Someone, a boy, walks away from the crowd alone. He drifts on some kind of a trip: an animated bird emerges in a blaze of orange out of the black and shoots up into the trees, disrupting the quiet realism of the image. The sky lightens. Now the trunks of the birches are white and mist hangs in a thick cloud over the canal. Two young men, one with a face like Jean-Pierre Léaud, climb into the submarine. It’s dark inside, painted with a mural – red, green, blue. There’s another guy there, a bit older, a DJ. He puts a record on the turntable and pushes the sliders on the desk. ‘Sueño Latino’ fades in. The boy who looks like Léaud smiles.
After watching Goodbye First Love (Un amour de jeunesse, 2011), I think Mia Hansen-Løve must be interested in several things I’m interested in, including:
· seasonal light
· the ubiquity of IKEA
· the way a perfect pop song can carry you through the world
· camera movements that pivot the way good string players change bow direction – so smoothly you don’t always realise why you’ve just felt a shift in the rhythm
· and the way real life always resists closure.
At the end of the film, Camille (Lola Créton) does not stop loving Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky). Their relationship, forever left unresolved, simply moves from the centre to the periphery, as Camille moves from an experience of love that is all-consuming to one that has room for her to grow, that offers her, not only another, but also herself. In the final sequence, she walks to the river and, in the same spot where Sullivan swam alone at the beginning of the film, swims alone. The camera pulls back as she drifts down the river. Things accumulate.
This notion of life as accumulation rather than progress is felt even more intensely in Hansen-Løve’s Eden (2014). Based on the real life of her brother, Sven, who was a DJ throughout the 1990s and early 2000s (the French Touch era), the film stretches, wallows and drags with the passing years. It follows the trajectory of Paul (Félix de Givry) from fan, to successful DJ and host of a popular club night, and then into the years beyond, after house music's popularity has faded, and Paul faces the after-effects of a decade-long party. The narrative’s drawn-out structure captures the temporal affect of stagnant years that seem to pass both slowly and too fast. Scenes where Paul, his DJ partner Stan (Hugo Conzelmann) and a rotating group of friends play shows, prepare sets, listen to records and talk about music build up in such a way that it is difficult to distinguish one night from another.
At the end of the film, when Paul begins attending a creative writing class (a cycling back, in a way, as early in the film he abandoned a writing thesis for DJing), the shift feels reluctant. What has come before pushes back. In a preceding scene, Paul watches a girl DJ a set from a laptop in a quiet bar. Times have changed. The crew members are drinking mineral water, the bar is small and intimate. The DJ is playing ‘Within’ from Daft Punk’s 2013 album Random Access Memories and, as the image changes, the song bleeds over, so that the trace of the bar’s warm timbre hangs over the bare, acoustic space of the classroom.
Random Access Memories is an album of nostalgia and enthusiasm – one that draws on songs Daft Punk loved as children, re-imagining their sound and energy in new collaborations with artists they love today. This grounding of the present in the past is something Eden articulates, albeit in somewhat more melancholic terms. In Eden, moving on, changing, becoming anew is a heartbreak – and heartbreaks are beautiful and necessary for living well.
In the final scene, we see Paul make steps to change his life with thoughtful action. He replaces with a shopping list the whiteboard drawing that Cyril (Roman Kolinka), the film's dark soul, made early in the film. This is a more honest reflection of how it feels to move from one part of life to another than films, with their devotion to inner emotional transformation, usually admit.
Or at least, that’s how I view the film now. The first time I saw it, the creative writing class felt like failure.
That first viewing left a bitter aftertaste. Walking to my temp job in the city, dressed in a cheap office dress with my hair up to hide the fact that I haven’t showered, I notice things that could become photographs if I weren’t already late and hungry and exhausted from the intense boredom of drone labour. I feel like the overhead lighting in Paul’s workshop classroom – forced and faintly green, the pallor of a ten-year hangover. I thought: When did I stop taking photography walks and start being late?
At work, I Google-stalked Mia Hansen-Løve. She’s the same age as me and has messy hair. For no serious reason, I like her.
I was reading Greil Marcus on Nan Goldin. Her sequence of photographs of people in their most intimate moments is a pop song of photographic history, so loved it always risks passing into cliché, but – because it's somehow proved so impossible to replicate – never does.
|The images and the music are often attached to each other with a literalism that in other hands might be killing. As you see women who've been beaten up, women with black eyes, bruised breasts, a slashed wrist opened up like a flower – and all this almost at the start, before you've seen anyone who might have left most of these marks – that is, men – you hear the Creatures' ‘Miss the Girl’. [...] The approach is corny in description but not as you watch. The brief time on the screen for each image, long enough for each to register, not long enough for any one image to claim the territory of another, the music slipping from one selection to the other, make it all into a movie. [...] The literalism of the pairings of songs and images dissolves – because it's not a matter of the way, in a song, the music allows the words the singer is singing to transcend their banality. Here the images are the music, and the songs are the words. (1)||
1. Greil Marcus, ‘Songs Left Out of Nan Goldin's Ballad of Sexual Dependency’, Aperture, no. 197 (Winter 2009).
Hansen-Løve frequently walks the line Goldin did, of emotion so literal it is surprising that it isn’t mawkish. In Goodbye First Love, Camille spends the first part of the film tearfully pining after a boy who is, objectively, nothing special. Later she has a miscarriage, and then an affair that plunges her back into the over-emotion of her teenage years. In Eden, Paul discovers that Louise (Pauline Etienne) was pregnant during their relationship and had an abortion – news that sends him into a foetal position on the carpet, choking with drugs and tears. And yet, despite the soap-opera potential of some of her material, Hansen-Løve roots these moments within the everyday, so that the emotion is hitched to a stream of non-dramatic but vital moments: Louise taking her two small children to the park, Camille busy at work. By choosing to focus on what happens around the dramatic moment – rather than showing a literal image of the moment itself – she offers something that feels very much like life: things happen, we think we might break, we make a small gesture toward change and, eventually, the intensity passes – even as the echo of the past resonates through each new action.
And, like Goldin in the gallery versions of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Hansen-Løve fits pop songs to her images in a way that draws on the immediate emotion of the form, while tempering possible banality through images that are firmly pragmatic. At the end of Goodbye First Love, when Camille floats down the river and Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling sing ‘The Water’ on the soundtrack, the song holds the reminder of Camille’s past emotion, while the image pushes her into her future. The love Camille chooses is both for herself and for a man who is independent and practical. It is a grown-up (and, in conventional terms, unromantic) love that is rarely the stuff of film.
In Eden’s studio apartments, things happen in bed. It’s in bed that Julia (Greta Gerwig), Paul’s American writer girlfriend, tells him she’s moving back to New York. It’s in bed that he tries and fails, over and over, to love Louise as she wants to be loved. And it’s true. Think about everything big that happened to you in your 20s. Most of it happened in bed.
Mia Hansen-Løve is around the same age as I am, and so, despite growing up with the Indian Ocean between us, her cultural touch-points are somehow enmeshed with my own. Like her, I came of age at the end of dance music’s heyday; watching Eden, the clubs of Paris meld with the clubs I danced in during the late ‘90s. I wonder if the rapid globalisation of the ‘90s and early 2000s made for a moment of globalised partying, a string of interchangeable caverns full of people dancing. Or perhaps it’s the way she shoots the club scenes: the camera inside the action, but not trying to reenact the subjective bodily experience of clubbing, instead choosing to give the audience space to transfer their own memories onto the image. In an interview with Indiewire, Hansen-Løve explains she wanted the club scenes to have a distance to them, that she wanted to move away from the common approach to filming as if the camera were on drugs, and instead take a more objective approach. (2) It works, because the problem with affective drug-state camerawork is that there is no singular visual/aural/kinetic experience of being high in the middle of a club. Hansen-Løve’s approach gives viewers back their own subjective memories, allowing for a communion between image and audience that is led by them.
2. David Ehrlich, ‘Mia Hansen-Løve Talks Eden, Daft Punk, French Disco and Her Next Film The Future’, Indiewire, 18 June 2015.
|I try never to set myself apart from my audiences, because it’s taken me too long to get here. For me to start tripping on that now would be really silly. I’ve been playing 22 or 23 years now, and when I first started playing records the life expectancy of a club DJ was three years; after three years, you were history. Believe me, in the past 22 years I’ve seen a lot of DJs come and go, as many DJs as clubs. So just being a part of what my audience is all about is what keeps me in the place I’m at. I don’t get insecure about other DJs. I don’t think that I’m any better than anybody else. – Frankie Knuckles (3)||
3. ‘The Cult of the DJ: A Symposium’, Social Text, issue 43 (Autumn 1995).
I’ve heard the music of Frankie Knuckles described as Debussy or Satie for the dance floor. Born Francis Nichols in 1955, he became, in the 1980s, one of the key pioneers of house music – a maker of bright, euphoric, dance floor tunes that spin through sparkling melodies and burst with pops of cowbell. ‘The Whistle Song’ is just over seven minutes of joyful, freewheeling dance pop. It is music without any darkness to it; when divorced from the atmosphere of a club, it seems to go on too long. But, in a pill-drenched state of amorphous goodwill, it is exactly long enough. Each time its simple melodic theme returns, you feel like it’s the greatest five-note combo you’ve ever heard.
The song fits into Eden’s soundtrack at the moment when Paul and Stan have become DJs and their careers are on the ascent. Like the song, they’re full of possibility. In the scene, Paul puts the record on the turntable. He’s at home with his friends, who hang out on his bed as he plans the set. A Polaroid flash fires, Cyril (Roman Kolinka) is drawing, already showing signs of the obsessive introversion that will become the film’s central tragedy. They smoke, they talk about nothing much. But Cyril’s growing anti-social behavior disrupts the peace. His hollow presence is a sinkhole in the midst of a garden. He draws, unasked and unwanted, on the Polaroids.
There is something prescient about the choice of Knuckles as a soundbed to this scene, as if the pure, saccharine perfection of the song gestures toward the genre’s inevitable dissolution. Too much happiness ... And then there’s only ever one direction to go. The song itself, as joyful as it is, doesn’t go anywhere; it just returns over and over to its blithely whistled theme. But life is never in stasis, no matter how much we try to hold it down. At the film’s fifteen-minute point, Cyril already points to the darkness ahead.
Last night I saw electro-pop duo Purity Ring perform at the Sydney Opera House. With the dark room clouded in smoke, lit by deeply coloured lights, the show had the aesthetic of a post-apocalyptic rave. Purity Ring’s sound is sometimes like French Touch with the mess taken out: a cleaner, more refined dance sound for a digital age. I imagined the Opera House in some dystopic future, the plush red seats worried away with neglect, the concrete cracked and blooming with radiation-charged plants – and inside, people, as always, coming together to dance in abandoned cultural cathedrals. It would be a fitting end.
from Issue 6: Distances
© Sarinah Masukor, February 2016.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.