John Cassavetes, Jacques Demy and mumblecore aesthetics mix awkwardly together in Damien Chazelle’s “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.” Set in Boston, the black-and-white 16-millimeter semi-musical revolves around titular characters Guy (trumpeter Jason Palmer) and Madeline (Desiree Garcia) who bond over a shared love for jazz. After dating for an unspecified amount of time (it is unclear for how long, due to the film’s rather confused chronology and spatial sense) Guy has a chance meeting with another woman, Elena (Sandha Kihn) on the subway. He is drawn to her and soon drifts away from Madeline to Elena, although Guy and Elena seem to have oddly little in common.
Chazelle’s film wears its many influences—MGM musicals, Michel Legrand’s French New Wave musical scores, 1950’s and 1960’s jazz documentary films—as well as its heart on its sleeve, but Chazelle lets his grand ambitions overwhelm his grasp of film grammar basics. A jazz musician himself, Chazelle aims for a similarly improvisational air in his film. Unfortunately this makes much of what happens very difficult to follow. The narrative is frequently interrupted (in fact, stopped dead) by impromptu musical sequences, to varying degrees of success. One particularly rousing number occurs at a house party, while others feature Madeline during the couple’s separation: two out on the street, and one in a diner where she works as a waitress. The film’s disparate styles—nervous close-up camerawork sits alongside fully choreographed Dennis Potter-type musical numbers—are not very well integrated into the fabric of the world he evokes, resulting in a film that feels less eclectic than schizophrenic. Due to his wildly uneven approach, Chazelle seems to randomly happen upon a few compelling moments. A couple of examples of this are Elena’s strange encounter with a retired ex-cop, and the conclusion where Guy, unable (or unwilling) to express himself with words, lets his trumpet do his talking for him. In the end, though, this film is too besotted with its own ersatz romanticism to leave much of an impression; it’s a rehearsal for a film rather than a fully realized performance.
“Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” screens on April 26 and May 3 at the Tribeca Film Festival.