Via my friend Josh, my Virgil through the seven circles of mumblecore, I came recently to Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, which rose to the top of my Netflix queue, arrived at my house, and then sat around unseen until I nearly returned it but first watched the opening few minutes just to see what I'd be missing if I did. That glimpse was enough to make me keep it.
This is not my place to make a brief for or against mumblecore, however you define the lo-fi, often improvisational films that have been appearing at festivals and on art-house screens the last decade (and have produced at least one legit crossover star, the fabulous Greta Gerwig). As with many genres, I've loved some I've seen (Humpday, Beeswax, Medicine for Melancholy), liked aspects of others (Hannah Takes the Stairs, Mutual Attraction), and been anti- or apathetic toward some more (I can't remember their names, but ask Josh--there have been a few!).
Whatever mumblecore may be, the existence of the genre is part of the surprising pleasure of Guy and Madeline. It's a thoroughly referential film (only confirmed by the film-geeky DVD commentary of its director, Damian Chazelle, a musician and film fanatic who shot the picture while a Harvard undergrad), starting with the title reference (which I did not pick up) to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. But all the references Chazelle mentions are to older cinema (Pickup on South Street, Gene Kelly, Anna Karina): while his movie is made with some of the conventions of mumblecore, it seems blessedly to live outside the hothouse of many of its peers, in which many of the same actors and directors (Bujalski, Swanberg, Duplass) show up in each other's films.
The hook in Guy and Madeline is that it's the "mumblecore musical." Chazelle doesn't put it that crassly, but his avowed goal for the movie was to smash up the lo-fi, verite style against the classical musical. And indeed he does: amateurish actors have ambiguous relationship scenes in bohemian apartments shot in shaky hand-held close-up, and then they also, from time to time, break out in song or, in the case of the lead trumpet player, Jason Palmer, in melody. And that's a fine idea in itself, but the musical side could have been done in a more traditionally mumbly way, where the singers aren't very good and they are just playing around with their instruments (think of the bathtub trumpet scene between Gerwig and Kent Osborne in Hannah Takes the Stairs).
But the beauty (and beauty is the operative word) of Guy and Madeline is that there's not just a collision between mumble and musical, but between amateurism and virtuosity. Because the music is good, as are the musicians who perform it. Jason Palmer's Guy may be mumbly to the point of incoherent in his relationships, but with his horn he is thrillingly skilled and emotionally compelling. Even Madeline, played by Desiree Garcia, though she is not a professional musician either in real life (instead, charmingly, she's a scholar of movie musicals) or within the story of the movie, turns out when she breaks into song to be able to put over a lovely talk-jazzy style quite well herself. And in the most audacious scene of the movie, a house party of, one assumes, music and theater students and young pros breaks out into a multiroom production number, with the camera swinging back and forth with as much rhythm and skill as the musicians and dancers.
That's a benefit of setting your mumbly relationship drama among musicians: they may still be haphazardly navigating the waters of urban twenty-something life, nearly unable to hold a standard conversation, but they have developed a sophisticated way of expressing themselves in one channel, and the tension between the two (as well as the beauty of those sophisticated expressions), makes Guy and Madeline perhaps my favorite mumbler yet. I expect that tension will appear again and again, as some of the other lo-fi practitioners grow up and reckon with their own increasing virtuosity.