'Guy And Madeline,' Singing A Bittersweet Old Tune

Jason Palmer i i

A Jazzy Affair: A trumpeter himself, Jason Palmer makes an assured film debut as a musician whose charisma draws women in, but who's better at solo work. Variance Films hide caption

itoggle caption Variance Films
Jason Palmer

A Jazzy Affair: A trumpeter himself, Jason Palmer makes an assured film debut as a musician whose charisma draws women in, but who's better at solo work.

Variance Films

Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench

  • Director: Damien Chazelle
  • Genre: Drama/Musical
  • Running Time: 82 minutes

Not rated.

With: Jason Palmer, Desiree Garcia, Sandha Khin

(Recommended)

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If not for the cell phones, Damien Chazelle's debut feature could almost be mistaken for a time capsule from the early '60s. Begun as Chazelle's thesis for the Harvard Film School (before he decided to take a leave of absence to concentrate on the project), Guy and Madeline Sitting on a Park Bench is soundtracked by retro-style jazz, composed of intimate hand-held close-ups and voyeuristic urban street scenes, and shot on grainy black-and-white 16-millimeter film stock. If John Cassavetes had directed a jazz musical by Jacques Demy, it might have looked something like this.

There's an unabashed romanticism to the film, with its unassuming song-and-dance numbers, that might seem at odds with the gritty verite of its visuals. But Chazelle likes to embrace these subverted expectations. This is a romance about a breakup, after all: Guy and Madeline start the movie as the couple on that park bench, but by the end of the opening-credits montage, the pair have split, and the rest of the movie charts their separate paths.

Guy is a jazz trumpeter (as is Jason Palmer, the first-time actor who plays him), as talented as he is self-involved, which does no favors for the women in his life, who are attracted by his charisma only to be left lonely and adrift. Madeline (Desiree Garcia) is introverted and somewhat aimless, with a soft spot for charismatic creative types; she moves on from Guy to a drummer who tries to teach her how to play, in a wonderfully conceived echo of a scene near the start in which Guy attempts to teach her the trumpet.

The story is more suggested than told. Apart from the musical numbers, this could be a silent film, its emotional beats conveyed via highlighted gestures and subtle glances. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the scene where Guy meets new girlfriend Elena (Sandha Khin): It's a masterpiece of sexual tension and discovery, played out without a single word on a crowded subway train that Chazelle manages to shoot as if his characters were the only ones on it.

Desiree Garcia i i

Desiree Garcia plays Madeline, a woman who must find her own path after separating from Guy. Randall Mortzfield/Variance Films hide caption

itoggle caption Randall Mortzfield/Variance Films
Desiree Garcia

Desiree Garcia plays Madeline, a woman who must find her own path after separating from Guy.

Randall Mortzfield/Variance Films

The music plays as large a role as the actors, with Justin Hurwitz's lively compositions letting Chazelle explore music's power to evoke memory, intensify emotion and provide a foundation for the important moments of our lives. There's an easy and joyous love for music here, nearly equal to the obvious affinity for old movies.

Those yesteryear inclinations, in lesser hands, might just have been meaningless film-school homage. The cinephile references are never subtle, from visual nods to Demy's Umbrellas of Cherbourg (which also featured a couple named Guy and Madeleine), to a restaurant-based musical fantasia that evokes Anna Karina's iconic cafe dance in Jean-Luc Godard's Band of Outsiders.

But this is far more than imitation, more than someone watching classic films and aping their shot selection. This is a kind of cinema that no one really makes anymore — yet Chazelle demonstrates a stunning natural fluency in its outdated grammar. It's as if he's spontaneously started writing gorgeous poetry in a long-dormant language. The result is at once anachronistic and surprisingly immediate, a magnetic debut that loses nothing for having its eye always on the rearview. This new spin on the past portends a great future for its talented young director. (Recommended)

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