A magical amalgam of Jean-Luc Godard, Miles Davis, Morris Engel and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” helmer Damien Chazelle’s “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” catches you off-guard and keeps you there. It’s not every day one finds a black-and-white movie with a score performed by the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra — or one so umbilically connected to music itself (jazz, mostly), and so simultaneously immersed in observational realism and the conceits of the 1930s musical. A surprise, a delight and a whimsical experiment, it could, despite its rigorous efforts to be noncommercial, end up a bona-fide cult hit.
The Madeline of the film’s title could have appeared in both “Masculin feminin” and a Busby Berkeley extravaganza. Actress Desiree Garcia’s tap dancing is impressive; likewise, her expressive silences.
A romance whose entire setup is revealed behind the opening credits — boy meets girl, boy leaves girl — “Guy and Madeline” is as casual with time as it is with its sources and moods: Gifted composer Justin Hurwitz’s opening theme suggests a “Barefoot in the Park”-era buoyancy, despite the unfolding heartbreak. The jazz performances — Jason Palmer plays Guy, and an enormous amount of soulful trumpet — are spontaneous and real.
The capturing of conversations and faces suggest Cassavetes at his most intimate. Yet when Madeline sings, it doesn’t trigger an avalanche of artificiality. That the music and dance are so underproduced helps knit all these eclectic elements together. As in Jacques Demy’s “Umbrellas,” a suspension of belief is required, but it needn’t be overly suspended.
Guy meets Madeline, teaches her rudimentary trumpet, then, after an erotic encounter on the Boston subway, quits Madeline for Elena (Sandha Khin), a girl of suspect scruples: Prior to her run-in with Guy, she’s tried to pick up a street juggler, giving him a fictitious name; later, she’ll be picked up herself by a white-haired smoothie named Frank (Frank Garvin) and go home with him — only to surprise his 12-year-old daughter, Alma (Alma Prelec). The Frank-Elena sequence is a jarring digression from the main narrative, such as it is, but like much of the pic, it’s engagingly audacious.
Part performance film, part parable about love and art (and which comes first), “Guy and Madeline” isn’t about particularly nice people. Guy is a self-absorbed jazzman, and Elena’s no prize, either; only Madeline, in her longing and song, wins hearts. But there are moments here that are simply transcendent — the point all along of having characters who stop talking and sing.
Production values are intentionally roughed-out, although Chazelle’s monochromatic 16mm shooting is expressive in its shadows. The music is mostly terrific.