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MILL VALLEY, Calif. — Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s distinctive debut feature, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” has the expansive spirit of a big city romance, though it was made for a song. That’s an apt metaphor for a film whose true love and favored medium of communication is music — sophisticated, soulful jazz in particular. Shot in black and white on 16mm in a spontaneous, stripped down style, it manages to be both low key, downtown cool and exuberant at the same time.
Chazelle keeps dialogue sparse and plot and character somewhat peripheral. These choices, while integral to the film’s verite charm, may impede its chances of theatrical release. But with the right distributor, “Guy” could develop a following.
When first seen together, Madeline (Desiree Garcia) is at loose ends and her relationship with Guy (played by up and coming trumpeter, Jason Palmer) is faltering, a situation that goes from bad to worse after his charged encounter with Elena (Sandha Khin), whom he meets in a crowded subway car. Guy could be any young man searching for love and losing it, except this one is a helluva musician.
The grainy footage of Guy and a pickup group performing with gusto at informal gatherings, where someone casually breaks into song and tap dancers vie to outdo each other on the dance floor, is reminiscent of jazz artists Thelonious Monk and Dexter Gordon, jamming in the ’50s and ’60s. Musical sequences like these that could appear staged and contrived evolve in a fluid and natural fashion, as if the audience just dropped in on a hip party.
An after-hours tap number with Madeline and her co-workers, which Garcia performs with an easygoing flair, has the offhand, improvisatory feel of Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire for whom a piece of discarded paper or a coat rack could spur an impromptu dance.
Set in Boston and New York, urban hustle and street noise commingle with the lush, Gershwin-inspired score by talented composer Justin Hurwitz, who with Chazelle wrote most of the songs, priming us for the limitless possibilities of being young and rootless in the city.
Intimacy is established less with words than with close-ups of actors’ faces, and dialogue organically blossoms into wistful songs that express innermost thoughts. (Think of Cassavetes without the angst combined with a gritty, minimalist “Young Girls of Rochefort.”)
Chazelle may have inhaled the heady influences of the French New Wave and the smoky atmospherics of jazz clubs he frequented, but he has forged something very much his own. His film suggests that the emotional connection between players and instruments is direct, passionate and unequivocal and that music, a jazzy, exhilarating soundtrack underscoring daily life, is the lingua franca of human experience.
Unable to find words to adequately to express his helplessness at Madeline’s imminent departure, the plaintive notes emanating from Guy’s trumpet say what can’t be said any other way.
Venue: Mill Valley Film Festival
Production company: A Damien Chazelle Presentation
Cast: Jason Palmer, Desiree Garcia, Sandha Khin, Andre Hayward, Frank Garvin, Alma Prelec
Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenwriter: Damien Chazelle
Executive producers: W.A.W. Parker
Producer: Jasmine McGlade, Mihai Dinulescu
Director of photography: Damien Chazelle
Music: Justin Hurwitz
Costume designer: None
Editor: Damien Chazelle
No rating, 83 minutes
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