A quasi-documentary portrait of young nonactors striking poses, walking around Boston, hanging out and playing or listening to music, Damien Chazelle's Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is a giddy and cannily frugal avant-musical. Beginning when Chazelle, now 25, was an undergraduate at Harvard, and evolving over a period of years, the movie is at once fresh and retro, a casual three-mumblechord affair glamorized by its exuberant nostalgia for pop bop of the late '50s and the then–new wave excitement of Shadows and Breathless.
Narrative barely exists, except as musical-comedy trope: A self-absorbed young trumpeter Guy (jazz musician Jason Palmer), a wiry cat with an angelic face, and the beatific, somewhat bewildered Boston student Madeline (Desiree Garcia, writing a dissertation on Hollywood musicals while filming) fall in love, break up, become involved with other people and reconnect … maybe.
The movie was shot old-style in black-and-white 16mm, nervously handheld and mainly in tight close-up. (When Guy showers with his new girlfriend, the camera seemingly crowds against them in the stall.) Establishing shots and transitions are few, pulverized vignettes and conversational shards plentiful. Not just Justin Hurwitz's big-band score (recorded by the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra) but the entire movie, half filmed on the street or in the Boston transit system, jumps. Nothing is ever still; everything feels off the cuff. (When Guy's family comes up from North Carolina, they’re played by the actor’s actual relations.) Even better, anything can cue a song.
Some of the numbers, lyrics by Chazelle, are shown in performance — Guy’s trumpet burbling in the background as a pal warbles “I Lost My Heart in Cincinnati.” Others are presented as spontaneous jam sessions. (In one, a hipster Fred Astaire sings, “Love in the Fall,” tap-dancing around a recording studio while keeping time with a pair of drumsticks.)
Music and dance are all the more crucial in that the characters are otherwise notably noncommunicative. Charmingly imperfect, Madeline several times breaks into song on the street or in the midst of life — not unlike Anna Karina in Godard’s Pierrot le fou — to reveal her feelings. Even more Godardian is the big production number, staged at the Summer Shack where Madeline works as a waitress. Fellow employees join together to clean the joint and tap on the tables as she recaps her story: “I kissed a boy in the park! … I like New York in the fall!”
The enthusiasm with which Chazelle and company put on this show is anything but innocent, but it is infectious. Guy and Madeline is at once self-conscious and breezy, clumsy and deft, diffident and sweet, annoying and ecstatic. It's amateurish in the best sense, and it radiates cinephilia. No movie I've seen this year has given me more joy. (Sunset 5)