Tell me what you think.
I must have missed something. How does Damien Chazelle‘s debut feature Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench warrant any praise besides its context within La La Land‘s history? I say this as a Chazelle fan too. I think Whiplash was one of the best works of the decade and La La Land a resonant contemporary musical deserving of its acclaim despite those who dismiss it as overrated having a point. But their predecessor about a man and woman who break-up and go their separate ways is all over the map when it’s not making me scratch my head as far as wondering if I’m supposed to sympathize with the former. Chazelle presents his romance as though Guy (Jason Palmer) and Madeline (Desiree Garcia) are equals. But are they?
It starts with us watching the cause of their separation. Guy meets a girl on the subway (Sandha Khin‘s Elena) and goes home with her while Madeline awaits his call. Eventually the titular couple is seen on a park bench, silent and pained as their relationship is dissolved without words. Off she goes to find a new place to live and a new job waitressing at the Summer Shack. Off he goes to return home, remove every last memory of her, and welcome Elena in as his new beau. Madeline struggles to stay afloat—her life providing disappointments at every turn via dry comedic transitions like her future boss saying “I think I have something for you” before Chazelle cuts to her washing dishes. Guy reveals his deficiencies.
So we empathize with Madeline and learn to despise Guy. While she pines over him for reasons I never understood (their coupling’s happiness is briefly portrayed during a montage credit sequence), he’s shown to be compassionately indifferent if not a full-fledged bully who treats Elena as a chore rather than finding the strength to tell her it’s not working. He uses her for domestic purposes while refusing to make her a part of his life. When a friend arrives he tells her to boil water for dinner before going down to hang out and have fun. When he returns to see she couldn’t work the stove, he dejectedly says, “Let’s just go out for food.” He doesn’t even tell her his family is visiting until leaving to pick them up.
What’s worse is that Chazelle focuses on Elena a lot. We get to know her as a person before she meets Guy and then watch their failing romance from her perspective more than from his. It becomes another reason for us to dislike him. Guy let someone we believe is a great person go and pushes her replacement towards the door almost from the moment he wakes up after sleeping together. We root for these women, hoping to see them achieve everything they deserve in direct correlation to his karmic retribution. But Elena isn’t in the title. Despite sharing equal screen time (with much of it spent away from Guy), she’s merely a bit player in their story. A story working towards a reunion I’d never get behind.
For me the script is a complete failure. It makes me dislike Guy from the gate and has me disliking Madeline upon realizing she won’t stop hoping they’ll end up back together. The film never tells me why she’d think that or gives evidence that he’s only acting like a dick because he made a mistake and feels bad dumping Elena. All we know is that he’s a dick and she can do better—things that grossly undercut the memorable musical sequences wherein Madeline sings about her love. Here are these rousing set pieces of pure entertainment with catchy melodies and fun choreography that ring hollow because we don’t want her to want him. We want her to leave Boston for New York and never look back.
We also want Elena to walk away. Maybe she does too, but we’ll never know because she disappears after a weird vignette that’s either effectively skivvy or ineffectively sweet depending on what Chazelle was going for when he wrote a married man in to harass her and ultimately win her over. Was the goal to show that Elena only gets with damaged souls? Are we supposed to see her as a serial adulterer who lets men break-up their relationships with her only to toss her aside so she can do it to another? I’m honestly curious and yet couldn’t care enough to research whether Chazelle explains his reasoning in interviews. Nothing he could say would change my opinion. He was either misguided in writing her or failed.
That by no means diminishes Khin’s performance—one of the best, most natural parts of the whole. I even loved the slip when she introduces herself to another character (I assume an actual street juggler) with her real name “Sandha” before correcting herself as “Elena.” Her ability to move from joyous and forgiving to hurt and embarrassed whenever Guy does or says something he’s too stupid to realize makes her feel less than is unforgettable. Elena becomes the emotional core of the film as a result. She sees what Guy is doing to her rather than ignore it like we assume Madeline has to still wish for him back. I could tell you everything she did because there was an honesty to cling onto unlike the others.
Palmer shows off his trumpeting skills and Garcia her tap-dancing, though. These two are wonderful artists thrust into roles that sadly do them no justice. He gets to play a couple times (one sequence in a cramped apartment as someone sings and taps in the other room a direct precursor to Chazelle’s pans in Whiplash) and she sings twice (the songs obvious ancestors to La La Land both in presentation and sound—Justin Hurwitz did do the music after all). These types of technical, formal, and thematic similarities to Chazelle’s later work are therefore where Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench earns its worth. It will always be a part of that legacy with just cause, but I won’t lie and say it has much relevance otherwise.