IN GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH (2010), director Damien Chazelle draws on the visual language of direct cinema, an elliptical narrative, and a series of musical numbers to tell the story of a jazz trumpeter and a young woman as they seek their separate paths before effecting a tentative reunion. A studied naturalism seems almost de rigueur for low-budget American films these days, and Chazelle obliges; shooting on 16-mm stock, using handheld cameras and unmotivated zooms, and lingering on peripheral, “documentary” details, the film faithfully adopts the observational aesthetic of nonfiction filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman—only with faster cutting.
But if Chazelle’s adoption of these techniques is marked by a self-consciousness mannerism—the sense that he’s only giving us shots of random people walking down Boston streets because that’s what filmmakers like him are supposed to do—then the musical numbers involving Madeline (Desiree Garcia) use the same reflexive awareness to marginally more productive ends. Simply put, in 2010 you can’t have a young woman burst into song in the middle of a park without calling attention to the deliberate anachronism of the gesture. And Chazelle is more than happy to play up the artificiality, bringing in a background chorus of restaurant workers for Madeline’s second number, set at a local seafood shack. The film’s other musical moments, the live performances by Guy (Jason Palmer), are less successful. Fixing the musicians in close-up as they take their solos, Chazelle attempts to bring us nearer to the soul of the music. The added proximity reveals little, though, given that the tunes are mostly by-the-numbers hard bop and blues.
This is a movie of moments that don’t quite cohere—that don’t even seem to want to. While that may lead to a frustrating opacity, many of said moments are self-contained triumphs: a meeting between Guy and a young woman on the subway that’s viewed as a succession of tighter shots as the two bodies edge closer together; an impromptu jam session in the studio; and a final solo recital by Palmer, shot in a single take as he navigates a ballad of piercing intensity, delivering, for the first time, a performance that can stand up to the relentless scrutiny of Chazelle’s camera.
Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench opens at Cinema Village in New York on November 5.