From the mid-90s to the early aughts, Paris' tight-knit French Touch scene (think Daft Punk, Cassius and Étienne de Crécy) won over hordes of dance-averse teens across the world with its signature Gallic flair: filtered disco samples, soulful vocal hooks and hypnotic basslines. Yet that slice of 4/4 history remains woefully under-documented because the scene burned bright before party kids were Instagramming salacious dance floor selfies, Shazamming club playlists and Tweeting nightlife rants and raves in real time.
Enter acclaimed 33-year-old indie filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve (Goodbye First Love), who was merely 13 when she first hit Paris's after-dark temples, surrendering to the feel-good magic of Frankie Knuckles' "The Whistle Song," Aly-Us's "Follow Me" and Liquid's "Sweet Harmony" at her brother Sven's weekly DJ nights. Seven years her elder, Sven Love laid the groundwork for the City of Lights' BPM explosion, alongside the then helmet-free Daft Punk boys and a slew of other scruffy, chain-smoking Frenchmen.
These experiences provide the autobiographical framework for Eden, Mia's impressionistic, two-decade-plus (1992-2013) survey of the influential French touch scene. The sprawling narrative centers around Sven-surrogate Paul (Félix de Givry), a teen revelling in the hedonism of early-era rave culture, who creates a DJ duo with his friend Stan (Hugo Conzelmann) to channel their mutual passion for Chicago garage. What follows are years of fever-pitch merrymaking—synth-and-drug-fuelled epiphanies and an unflappable devotion to the scene, its underground zines to influential radio shows. Stuck in a state of arrested development, Paul's party-throwing operation reaches its apex before the enthusiasm of those around him begins to wane. Girlfriends (including a memorable turn by Greta Gerwig) and acquaintances come and go, but his commitment to the almighty gospel of house never wavers, regardless of the toll it takes on him.
Eden has garnered rave reviews at the Toronto and New York film festivals in recent weeks, with US distributor Broad Green Pictures picking up the film for a stateside release next spring. When I sat down with the Hansen-Løve siblings in Toronto last month, they recalled their excitement in pursuing a project that hit so close to home. "We both felt as though there was so much potential there, given that no one had written a film about this era," enthused Mia, who directed Eden and co-wrote it with Sven. "I started thinking about a film inspired by my brother's trajectory, his DJ career and his relationship to music. We quickly realized the scope of such a project, given that it would be a portrait of this generation."
Mia and Sven recognized the challenges and expectations that come with delivering the first rendition of an era that meant so much to so many—themselves included. So they took a very gung ho approach to historical accuracy, gobbling up every morsel of documentation they could find. "Throughout the project, from the writing to the pre-production to the shooting, we made it our mantra to be extremely rigorous in recapturing that moment in time," assured Mia. "Utmost authenticity almost became an obsession, but an exciting one! If this was to be the first feature on house music, we had to make sure we were doing it right."
Sven and Mia reconnected with the scene's key architects—graphic designers, DJs, party planners, photographers —core members of the community they had in many cases lost touch with. Among them, Christophe Vix, who founded the rave fanzine referenced in the film's title; Agnès Dahan, a photographer who trained her lens on the popular Respect parties; and Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, whose seminal, now-defunct X-Girl line outfits many of Eden's characters. "At the time, you couldn't go to New York or London without getting an X-Girl T-shirt, so Kim actually lent us her own clothes, because it's impossible to find them anymore," she explained. Every imaginable step was taken to ensure locations scouted, props furnished, bling bedecked and garments fitted out reflected the vast stretch of time chronicled in the film.
The Birth of "Da Funk"
Nothing was more intrinsic to the legitimacy of the project than securing the rights to the era's most indelible tracks—exhilarating late-night anthems by the likes of Jaydee, MK, Joey Beltram, The Orb and Daft Punk. In Eden, music functions as the industrial-strength glue holding together multiple narrative tangents. In addition to supplying the film with a curated selection of their finest cuts, the Grammy-winning robots better known as Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo are also written into the story (and played by Vincent Lacoste and Arnaud Azoulay), given their connection to Sven. A standout moment early in the film finds a visibly fidgety Thomas dropping his now-iconic acid house record "Da Funk" for the first time at a party—a significant moment the siblings still remember. "In that scene, when Thomas plays the track, he's really stressed out, and that's inspired by how Thomas's nerves would flare up when he manned the decks early in his career," said Mia. "The guys' awkwardness and lack of confidence are things we wanted to show, to chip away at the narrative of control freak musicians the media likes to run with. We wanted to show them for the rookie musicians they once were, because they were frankly spectacularly young when everything took off."
No Rags-To-Riches, Rock Star DJs
Eden captures the infectious energy of a nascent musical movement while steering clear of a hagiographic treatment—a tricky balancing act that many music-themed films never quite pull off. Although Manchester showcase 24 Hour Party People and techno pageant Berlin Calling are set in different eras and countries than Eden, Mia singles them out as like-minded tonal cousins. "But my primary aesthetic reference point was Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Millennium Mambo, which also dealt with this idea of fleeting youth," she pointed out." There's grace, poetry and melancholy in that film, which is set in Taiwan's nightlife milieu. It most closely resembles the mood we were aiming for."
With authenticity as their guiding mantra, Mia and Sven avoided the narrative clichés and artificial drama we've come to expect from films about youths on extended benders (overdoses! breakups! temper tantrums!). Instead, Eden explores the occasional tedium of endless years spent clocking in time behind the decks. "DJing day in, day out can be pretty isolating, which we wanted to illustrate," recalled Sven. "This idea that by partying, you don't see time slip away. My friends and I didn't have those token markers of adult life to guide us along, like starting a family or finding a 'real' job."
Autobiographical Film Therapy
While the character of Paul isn't an entirely autobiographical rendition of Sven, it's fair to say the part is intimately informed by the real-life DJ: Sven's apartment even filled in as Paul's humble abode for the purposes of the shoot. In many ways, Eden allowed him to finally turn the page on a vertiginous chapter in his life. "I had already begun the process, but the film really expedited the whole thing, helping me move on and bid adieu to that part of my life."
For her part, the film gave Mia an excuse to revisit a world she'd left prematurely to pursue a filmmaking career. "I was really disappointed to have moved on so soon, so it was an opportunity to vicariously relive what I might have missed," she reasoned. "It was such a unique moment in time: Brits were flocking to Paris because of their restrictive party legislation, and the scene brought together people of all ethnic origins and socio-economic backgrounds – people from all over Europe. That melting pot was really part of its charm."
At a recent private screening they held for friends and family, Sven recalled his French Touch DJ pals getting all teary-eyed. "They were both troubled and moved; in many ways, it was a confirmation that time had passed, bringing all kinds of memories to the fore." When Daft Punk's wistful piano ballad "Within" plays out near the end of the film, with its bittersweet call to "tell me who I am", it echoes Pierre's professional and personal cul-de-sac, while also speaking to what some in Sven's own entourage experienced.
French Touch > EDM
For lead actor Félix de Givry, who also runs Pain Surprises, a Paris-based electronic label and party collective, the film's release couldn't come at a better time, given that house and garage are in the midst of a full-blown renaissance. But he also thinks Mia wouldn't be able to bang out another gem of a film inspired by the current EDM landscape. "French Touch created a bridge between house and disco; Ed Banger then allowed a crossover between house and rock. The French Touch scene was tiny; everybody knew each other," he suggested.
While he acknowledged that songs with throbbing tempos now make up much of the chart-topping fare on commercial radio, even commanding capacity crowds at the world's biggest outdoor extravaganzas, the individual artists are scattered, fidgeting away on Ableton Live from the comfort of their bedrooms. In other words, the notion of a single, unifying 'scene' has completely dissolved. "Mia couldn't make a film about the current electronic landscape because it's not the story of a community or a small club, but of music festivals boasting 20,000+ attendees. If we take Avicii or David Guetta, for instance, they're not testing the waters of a new track before an intimate crowd; they just post the music to SoundCloud. It's just not the same relationship to music. That's not to say there aren't interesting pockets and micro-scenes nowadays, but there's no absolute truth or central narrative holding it all together, the way there was during the reign of French Touch."
"Is it right or wrong / Try to find a place / We can all belong?
Be as one / Try to get on by / If we unify / We should really try."
– Liquid, "Sweet Harmony" (1991)
Sure, cynical readers might roll their eyes at the PLUR naivety of such love-thy-neighbor lyrics, but "Sweet Harmony" serves as an apt testament to a time when the idea of building communities IRL didn't sound so adorably quaint. A sister's deeply poignant tribute to her big brother, to music that brought the people together, to fleeting moments of transcendence and to living large in the moonlight, Eden is a must for anyone who's ever gotten lost in the rhythm.
Michael-Oliver Harding is a culture writer living in Montreal – @olivermtl.