Damien Chazelle is not yet 40 years old, but is one of the most exciting American filmmakers working today. In just three widely released films — a fourth coming very soon — he’s built a reputation for intense and vibrant films. The films he’s both written and directed — e.g. Whiplash, La La Land, and the upcoming Babylon — are united by a central topic of creating sound and music. In what ways does creativity enhance our humanity, and in what other ways can it reduce or overtake us? And since he’s a musician and creator himself, his works have a self-reflective bent in addition to all of the other interesting things they’re doing on screen and in the script.
But back before he broke out with 2014’s Whiplash, he made a film while a student at Harvard called Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (henceforth this review, just Guy and Madeline). He was 24 years old when it debuted at Tribeca Film Festival. It eventually received a very limited release amid critical acclaim and helped him get his his foot in the Hollywood door.
Guy and Madeline is a tiny little black-and-white drama shot on 16mm following two Bostonian young adults, the titular Guy (Jason Palmer) and Madeline (Desiree Garcia), after a breakup. Guy is an up-and-coming jazz trumpeter; Madeline is unmoored and looking for a life plan.
Everything is shot in handheld, disproportionately in close-up. The style is aggressive naturalism, bordering on the improvised. It is, in other words, a mumblecore film at its roots. Much of the story is told in ellipsis — we get little snapshots that give us the emotional layout of the characters more than logistical details. Sometimes a scene is given more meaning later in the film when we hear a snippet of conversation that adds more context. It’s lo-fi impressionism in this regard. We get the characters’ arcs in fragments that combine to a larger picture.
This is also a musical, but in surprising ways. For much of the film, the music is entirely diegetic: Guy performs his songs for crowds, and it’s all captured on camera as if we’re flies on the wall. (Palmer is a real jazz trumpeter, and the music is recorded live.) But the music grows gradually more heightened until it evolves into a full on book musical by the end of its runtime. Madeline gets a showstopper number as she contemplates a major life move.
The X-factor in Chazelle’s career, starting with this movie, is his college roommate, composer Justin Hurwitz, who has joined him on each of writer-director projects. While Chazelle’s technique is a bit unformed through Guy and Madeline, Hurwitz’s work is complete and polished. The numbers are catchy, the score rich and jazzy — performed well by Palmer, who has real chops as a trumpeter. The music elevates what would otherwise be a prosaic indie drama.
Guy and Madeline is exactly my jam on multiple levels: I dig mumblecore movies in all their small-scale, low-stakes glory; I love cozy black-and-white photography; and I get a big kick out of movies messing around with reality via musical numbers. So don’t expect me to be too hard on this amateur effort. (And understand when you see the rating below that I was very tempted to bump it up an extra point.)
Chazelle might not have had had much experience going into Guy and Madeline, but his talent and instincts are unmistakable. A few scenes are absolutely gripping — there’s an early moment on a subway where hand placement on a safety rail becomes a romantic ballet, for example. The final shot is perfectly enigmatic and ambiguous, the romantic tension unresolved and spilling over to the quiet of the credits.
But it’s also, on the whole, unmistakably the work of a first-time director. Chazelle doesn’t have the knack for close-up shots; he knows they can be intimate and resonant, but he goes overboard with them so that they lose all meaning. Even at a runtime under 90 minutes, there’s some meandering around the middle of the film. And the abundance of handheld shots borders on the motion sickness-inducing — buy a tripod, my man. (I have a high tolerance for every one of these quirks, but I understand they can be grating.)
The movie is also hindered by its student film production values. The non-professional actors don’t bring the material to its full potential: Palmer and Garcia are typically fine, but have moments where they seem frozen and lacking interiority. Meanwhile, Chazelle doing his own cinematography is interesting, but I don’t think it’s a surprise he hasn’t tried that experiment again. The black and white photography is not especially rich or expressive.
It’s uneven, but it’s ultimately a promising and intriguing work that echoes his usual themes, and so is especially gratifying for fans of the director. Thanks to Hurwitz’s presence, it really does feel like a Chazelle film, just an earlier evolution and distinctly from its era (the tail end of the mumblecore wave). Most importantly, it has plenty of hints at the more cinematic material he’d create in the years to come.
- Review Project: Damien Chazelle Retrospective