Between Melancholy and Euphoria
In an odd remark in Sight and Sound, Frances Morgan says of Mia Hansen-Love's Eden, "using a 21-year timespan is not a formally elegant decision", as if there is something a priori wrong with a film that covers a vast period of time. There could be many reasons why a film covering many years in the lives of its characters might be inelegant, but to make temporal contraction a necessary condition of elegance is to offer an assumption too many. Perhaps Morgan is automatically assuming Aristotelian conditions: the importance of unity in time and space and Aristotle's admonishment concerning character. "A plot is not...unified because it is concerned with a single person. An indeterminately large number of things happen to any one person, not all of which constitutes a unity..." (The Poetics) Eden by this reckoning makes many mistakes: it covers more than two decades and focuses very much on the one character: a young DJ Paul (Felix de Givry) whose fascination with garage music carries him through his teens, twenties and mid-thirties.
Yet Hansen-Love is interested in time more than drama, and this is why we find Morgan's remark so odd: it isn't that the writer is wrong about general dramatic principles; just that this notion concerning them would seem to lead to a misunderstanding over the director's project. It is as though Morgan is talking about what we might call a dramatic tragedy; what interests Hansen-Love is what we will argue for as a temporal tragedy. What is the difference? The dramatic tragedy relies, as Aristotle indicates, on a certain unity of action: the person sets in motion an event that then dramatically unfolds with a feeling of inevitability. Medea cannot forgive her husband's infidelity and will murder her own children; King Lear wishes to divide his kingdom up amongst his three daughters but becomes churlish when one of his daughter's questions his decision and this will lead to his ruin. In Macbeth, the titular character's ambitions set in motion the tragic events to follow. Each play might be chiefly about one character (as the titles indicate), but they are only interested in the events that can move the play forward dramatically.
Yet many modern films are interested in temporal tragedy: in the awful inevitability of passing time that cinema is uniquely placed to capture. Whether it happens to be Ma vie sexuelle, Blue is the Warmest Colour, Boyhood or Eden, here we have films that have little interest in what screenplay dramatists too beholden to Aristotle call the inciting incident: the moment that sets in motion the drama of the film. Whether this happens to be King Lear passing on his kingdom, or the affair embarked upon by Romeo and Juliet, these moments set in motion the dramatic parameters of the plays. The films we invoke however search out the temporality of each situation, and see if they can consequently become a work of art. They don't possess a template that is dramatic structure, but time as the given component. This is so obviously the case in Boyhood where director Richard Linklater started filming and kept shooting footage over a decade to see if a film could come out of it. He had no idea in advance where the story would go because time had not yet passed: what he did was film various actors over more than ten years in various situations and waited to see what would happen. "It was like a time sculpture" he would say in a Guardian interview. Casting well known actors Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as the parents, Linklater's own daughter as the daughter, and a newcomer as the son, the biggest risk rested on how the son would age. Would he become an interesting cinematic presence over the decade Linklater filmed? If a director works from a set script and a well-known actor two things would seem guaranteed: the structure of the former and the photogenie of the latter. The former would be written and merely waiting to be performed, and the performer would be an actor with experience and presence that would give a professional solidity to the well-written material. By casting an unknown pre-pubescent in the lead role, Linklater had no idea what he would have in the intervening decade. He would have to shape the material around this actor and the personality and physiognomy that would develop. "I wanted the film to feel like a memory of some kind. I didn't want to get trapped in a story that felt dramatic - ie plot, or manufactured. Even the score didn't work. Any authorial thing just pulls you out. We didn't use words to demarcate the years. Your life just flows. I was hoping to capture the way time feels, passing." (Guardian) This is very far away from Aristotle and the script gurus determined to hold to his principles.
Eden takes place over a much longer period of time than Boyhood, but nevertheless casts the same actor in the leading role throughout as it was filmed over a much, much shorter time period. Casting twenty three year old de Givry playing someone from the age of eighteen through to his late thirties means that all Hansen-Love has to do is make him look very fresh faced at eighteen, and a bit tired and worn twenty years on. We would say of Paul he has aged well, for all the financial failures he endures and the coke habit he picks up. When we see him playing on the beach in his mid-thirties with his ex-girlfriend's kids, he looks like a passable catch, an attractive man who has kept his hair and his figure: when Louise (Pauline Etienne) splits up with the kids' father, she resumes her affair with Paul. We might assume they have been the love of each other's lives, a stale phrase perhaps but given credence within the film's context because other loves have passed through his life also. Romeo and Juliet were of course the love of each other's lives too, but Shakespeare's purpose was to create a dramatic unity that could illustrate the sacrifices they were willing to make for each other to show the enormity of their love as the characters have become synonymous with a great affair.
But in Eden, if we assume that Paul and Louise are the love of each other's lives, it is through witnessing twenty years of their existence. A mere year in Paul's life would have struggled to register this: for several years they are clearly friends, and at one moment she clambers into Paul's bed and he rejects her advances: he is still with, and in love with, his American lover Julia (Greta Gerwig). However, shortly afterwards Julia returns Stateside leaving Paul a note saying it is over, and he embarks on an affair with Louise. A more contained narrative would have indicated Julia was the important love and Louise little more than a rebound, but over the next few years the film shows the pair of them journeying to New York with the record label Paul has established, and after seeing a pregnant Julia Paul tells Louise he loves her. There is the implication he has never said it to her before as he adds that usually doing so brings him bad luck, the bad luck that led to Julia leaving and returning to her husband, though the father of the child he meets in New York seems a more recent acquisition.
What we notice is that the film's exploration of time rather than dramatic unity gives nuance to emotion; it means that it is only over time that we witness Louise's obvious importance to Paul, as the apparent great love Julia fades away. When we see him visiting Julia's apartment in New York it is a light scene of realisation. First of all Julia isn't in as her obvious present partner opens the door, and then later when she arrives he sees her deep into a pregnancy. There is even a moment where she apologises to her partner about shrinking an item of his clothing, and we see that they have a loving, caring relationship. There is little sense of temporal loss in this moment: it just makes Paul see that much of his love for Julia has been a product of his imagination, and perhaps why he finds that he can tell Louise he loves her shortly afterwards.
However, when we see later in the film Paul playing on the beach with Louise's kids, it is as though he could be the father, and the film plays this up by offering only the briefest of moments showing the father at all. When Paul visits Julia's partner, great play is made of this figure who seems to be the man she wishes to be with. The father of Louise's children appears insignificant, and this is made more evident some time later when she says she is moving in with her mother, taking the kids. If there is a sense Paul could have been the father of these children, this is emphasised later when after they start seeing each other again she becomes pregnant, but tells Paul that she aborted it. He has missed his opportunity to father Louise's kids: she doesn't want anymore. She already has two, is now living with her mother, and Paul hasn't the financial means to support a child anyway. Indeed he is the supported child throughout, constantly asking money from his mum as he tries to keep his record label going while he himself falls apart: he develops that long term coke habit. The film inverts the Romeo and Juliet doomed love affair, for a relationship doomed by the pragmatics of life. If Romeo and Juliet melodramatizes love as the couple take their own lives, Eden temporalizes love as it refuses the kinetic effect of the melodramatic. This is certainly so if we accept that one definition of melodrama is that plot is more important than character: that it can seem like an exaggerated version of Aristotle's classic definition of the dramatic. In this sense, Eden is the opposite of melodrama, and by way of contrast we can look at a film like The Adjustment Bureau that, though also working with time lapses, covering half a dozen years in the life of its protagonist, nevertheless follows the needs of the story over those of the character.
Here, politician David Norris (Matt Damon) finds that his love for dancer and choreographer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) is stymied by a sort of metaphysical adjustment board, determined to make the world a better place. David has a great career ahead of him in his field; Elise in hers, but only if they remain apart: and this is what the board tries to do, to keep them from staying together. This leads to melodramatic moments where David gets Elise's number and then never phones her, leaving her in the hospital after an accident, and then late in the film after she is engaged to another man insists she is making the wrong decision as he persuades her that she should be with him. Though on the DVD extras much is made of the shape Blunt got into so that she could authentically play the role of the dancer, the film gives her almost nothing to hold on to as a character. She is there to serve the demands of the plot, and while of course she offers the odd gesture of dismay and anger when David keeps coming into her life, her character remains a cipher to the plotting. We follow the obstacles put in David's way, not at all the pain of Elise's confusion during these years.
Now of course Eden follows Paul's life to the detriment of the other characters also, but this is elliptically rather than melodramatically. We might not follow Louise's life, but we have a clear sense of its meaning to her as she chooses to have a family and then perhaps feeling she has chosen the wrong man moves back in with her mother. We don't witness a scene where Louise aborts, but we get her telling Paul why she did it. This is elliptical storytelling that doesn't undermine character, but instead allows them an off-screen residue. Where Elise gives almost no sense of a life off-screen (with little more than a hopeful hanger on whom she gets engaged to twice), Louise has a fullness of character evident in the scenes where Paul visits her by the sea, where she lives after leaving Paris, then moving into her mum's place later, and telling Paul she will not be having his child. Part of this vivid existence as absence rests in the film's ability to offer elliptically a person's life. Paul is our central character, but the film also possesses peripheral ones too: figures who are not simply the supporting characters pertinent to the dramatic, but characters who remain on the fringes of the storytelling but give it a sense of a life beyond the frame.
We might believe for example that we need to rewatch the film to understand more clearly Cyril's suicide, an animator friend of Paul's who takes his own life around a third of the way through Eden. In other films about suicidal characters, like Il Grido or Le feu follet, the films follow the trajectory of the central characters' lives, and so we understand why they choose to die. Even if some believe the central character Aldo in Il Grido falls to his death rather than takes his own life, one reason why many critics are inclined to read the death as suicidal is because of the misery of Aldo's existence up to the point of his fall from the tower. It makes sense that he kills himself; just as in Le Feu follet it is equally clear that Alain Leroy cannot find meaning in his Parisian existence. Both films delineate the suicidal urge; in Eden, Cyril is too peripheral a character for his suicide to be anything but an enigma for us. One day Paul and others turn up at Cyril's apartment expecting that like the others he is packed and ready to go to New York when he tells them he isn't coming. When they get back he has taken his own life. Hansen-Love says that "I wasn't interested in showing Cyril committing suicide. Even more than that, I would have felt ill at ease showing it. I have a strong relationship with moral issues, and it's hard to explain why this or that I feel should not be there, but I never like to dramatize violent events in a way to push emotions of the viewer." (Blackbook)
We might muse over Hansen-Love's statement considering in her earlier The Father of My Children she does explicitly show the father's suicide, but her comment is certainly relevant to Eden: it is consistent with an approach to narration that denies the readily dramatic. "I do notice that there is a tendency and ideology in writing today about scripts where the character knows what they want to do and then goes in this direction. There is this idea that the character should be defined by the things that they want to be or to do" (Blackbook) as the film becomes all about moving from A to B. Hansen-Love adds, "I know audiences enjoy that, and I guess I enjoy that too in many films. It's very reassuring when you see a film and the problem of this character is that he doesn't have something to eat and he needs to get money so that he can get something to eat, and the film is about how he can get this money, even if he has to commit murder. You know what I mean, this is classical storytelling that makes you feel a lot of empathy because it's clear, it's obvious, and you can connect with that." (Blackbook) This is the sort of programmatic thinking evident in Syd Field's Screenplay: "The purpose of the scene is twofold: either it moves the story forward or it reveals information about the character. If the scene does not satisfy one, or both, of these elements, then it doesn't belong in the screenplay."
This is what Hansen-Love is fighting against, because Field is talking about dramatic structure, while Hansen-Love is asking how can we show the passage of time on screen. As she says, "actually, I consider my own films as pretty Romanesque, a lot of things happenit's been 20 years, you see people dying, you see people loving each other, separating. My films are full of events, except I don't show them when they're happening, I show in the middle, or the before. It seems to me I'm not as interested in the actual moment when the dramatic thing happens, because for me this brings me back to the conventions." (Blackbook) This resides in her interest in time: "my films are about time passing." (Blackbook)
This indeed leaves the whole film in a state of enigma: we don't find out exactly why Paul's father is never around, and though his mum seems to earn enough money to help him out when necessary, we're never sure what her job happens to be. We never find out why Julia left her husband, nor why Louise deserts hers. The film constantly leaves things in a state of narrational suspense as it doesn't generate motives towards action, but situations towards realisation. It wants to move towards a certain poetry of being, what Hansen-Love calls 'poesie', playing on its twin meaning: in "French it could have two meanings, la posie like writing poetry but la posie could also mean the beauty of life." (Film Comment) " I'm actually very moved by people who make the choice to live for poetry. I don't know if poetry is the right word in English. You can say that in French: when I say poetry, poetry is a way of living." (Film Comment) This is the enigmatic nature of a poetic existence over a practical one, where the filmmaker doesn't quite know where they are going because they are not so certain they know where the character is going.
In contrast, Field says, "The ending is the first thing you must know before you begin writing. Why? It's obvious, when you think about it. Your story always moves forward - it follows a path, a direction, a line of progression from beginning to end." Field admits that maybe you can be a bit looser with a novel or play, "but not a screenplay. You have only about 110 pages or so to tell your story the way you want to tell it." But Hansen-Love invokes the Romanesque, the novelistic, to say that she has no interest in such mandatory demands: that to be sure of one's ending is a little too close to creating a character with a clear direction, where what is interesting in Eden lies in the film's meandering approach that wants to find a poetic sensibility in both form and content. It wishes to illustrate it in Paul's life and show it in the film's form.
It makes sense that the film ends on Robert Creeley's 'The Rhythm Poem', with its lines: "the mind in men/personal, recurring/in them again,/thinking the end/is not the end, the/time returning,/themselves dead but/someone else coming." It is as though the film needs to find a means by which to explore a greater totality than either character or story that scriptwriting manuals demand, and discovers it in the time of the character's experience, thus going beyond the specifics of story or character to incorporate what we can only call the being of time: a properly Heideggerian experience. It is like a variation on Eric Rohmer's remark about A Star is Born when he talks of a death taking place. "In a recent George Cukor film...there is a similar wave [to one in Tabu] coming in to splash and then carry out the dressing gown left on the beach by James Mason. The idea would be questionable if the film-maker's sole intention had been to indicate thereby the suicide of his hero. But there is in the very motion of the wave so much grandeur and splendid indifference that I could never begrudge the author such a successfully realised effect." (Realism Reader). We are all contained by time, and so the rhythm of the sea reflects the rhythm of life, but this doesn't make the sea a symbol of the character's demise; it doesn't retreat from the character's death and find in the sea a metaphor for that death. No, it is closer to a temporal flow that incorporates the sea and man, just as it incorporates all of being: a proper sense of being and time. As George Steiner says in his short book on Heidegger: "The inalienability of death, the plain but overwhelming fact that each must die for himself, that death is the one existential potentiality which no enslavement, no promise, no power of 'theyness' can take away from the individual man, is the fundamental truth of the meaning of being"
This is central to the film's melancholy, with Hansen-Love sharing with Francois Truffaut the capacity to create a tragic sense of event made all the more tragic by the time that it incorporates. In the director's The Father of My Children and Goodbye First Love, the story isn't only about the event but also its aftermath. In The Father of My Children the central character commits suicide half way through the film after we see his film production company struggling to get by. In Goodbye First Love, the youthful central character tries to recover from the break-up with her boyfriend, which happens about a third of the way through the film. They don't have the temporal ambition of Eden, but they do share a temporal melancholy that indicates an idea of before and after: the particular ontological condition of comprehending the irrecoverable. It is a theme that fascinated Truffaut in Anne and Muriel and The Green Room, and there is a variation of it in The Woman Next Door. In Anne and Muriel, the central character never quite knows which of the two sisters he should love, and ends with neither as one passes away and the other miscarries while pregnant with their child. In The Green Room, the central character (played by Truffaut himself) devotes a room to the woman whom he loved and who has long since died. In The Woman Next Door, Gerard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant are two lovers from the past that coincidence brings together and which generates a very dangerous liaison. The past proves recoverable but at a great price, as time and circumstance (they are both married to others) has made a relationship fraught with tension, anxiety and despair. In each instance, time is tragic; or rather the tragedy rests in time, where in Romeo and Juliet it resides in situation.
What do we mean exactly by this? If we think of the unity Aristotle talks about, then the tragic dimension ought to rest on the dramatic rather than the temporal aspect. If a character acts with hubris, he does so because he gets into a situation where his pride dictates the nature of an event, and his fatal flaw precipitates the tragic. In King Lear he refuses to accept his honest daughter's advice, and this leads to the play's conclusion where he wanders in the moors mad and blind. In Macbeth, the eponymous character believes he is capable of becoming ruler, and with the aid of his scheming wife kills the king and gains power only to die at the play's conclusion. These are fine examples of Aristotle's unity many centuries after the philosopher's theories were proposed, but more recent drama has often tried to play by different principles and, taking into account Hansen-Love's remark about the romanesque, the novel might be central to this collapse of unity and the prominence of time.
Equally pertinent though is philosophical discourse: thus it made absolute sense that the most prominent novel of temporal exploration (evident in its very title), Proust's In Search of Lost Time, was influenced by Bergson's theories of the temporal, where time exists not only in action but also in duration: a time that doesn't have a beginning, a middle and an end in that order, but can be activated by involuntary memory which releases time long since forgotten as if it had happened yesterday, and where what happened yesterday is all but forgotten. As Proust says: "many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take." Biting into the petite madeleine, "no sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me...undoubtedly what is thus palpitating in the depths of my being must be the image, the visual memory which linked to that taste, is trying to follow it into my conscious mind."
Of course Eden's approach to time isn't as complex as Proust's: its twenty one years is chronological. But the moments it retrieves have the dimension of the Proustian: the sense that time has accumulated not as narrative present, as the dramatic, but as time regained: we feel by the end of the film that this is the privileged moments of a life, not their dramatic high points. After all, the high points are often easy to recall; but harder to trace are the moments that accumulate. There are no weddings and funerals in Eden (though we do witness a wake for Cyril) because the film is not about key events, but the nature of feelings. This is why Hansen-Love refuses the tenets of scriptwriting demands: the nuanced emotion, the sort of memories that are important but often trapped and that require sensory affect to be released, cannot always be found in the dramatic; they frequently need be discovered in the temporal. If Sight and Sound's Frances Morgan sees the film as a certain type of dramatic failure, we are inclined to see it as a very great temporal success.
© Tony McKibbin