Public Benches

Public Benches

***1/2

Reviewed by: Adam Micklethwaite

Bruno Podalydès Park Benches is a witty and irreverent take on contemporary life (note the recurring imagery of the goldfish bowl), presented as a series of loosely-connected character sketches, which take place in the banal, everyday settings of: an office, a park and a home improvement store. The comedy is underpinned by the film’s stellar French cast, including cameos by the likes of Catherine Deneuve and Mathieu Amalric and Julie Dépardieu.

We begin in deliberately banal, mundane fashion, following an ordinary woman, Lucie (Florence Muller), to work on a normal day, in a very normal office building, her routine morning punctuated by internet games and visits from middle management. Then, someone opens the blinds of the office and all of a sudden everyone stops what they’re doing. All eyes turn towards the large black banner under one of the windows in the building opposite, which reads: Homme Seul (Man Alone). But what can it mean? Speculation is rife about the possibilities: a cry for help by a man on the edge of suicide, a lovelorn guy desperate for Miss Right, or just some a hoaxer seeking attention? As Lucie and her co-workers seek to unravel the mystery, the film’s setting shifts from the office towards the local park, where the office workers go to enjoy their lunch break, and from there to a new cast of characters at the local home improvement store, where the mundane gradually strays into the realms of surrealism.

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This film, from auteur Podalydès, is essentially a comedy in three acts. It begins in an unremarkable office building where language becomes the tool by which we see beyond the dull exterior and into the internal life of the characters (something the office workers themselves are trying to do when they go in search of the Man Alone). This is demonstrated most effectively in a hilarious speech by the visiting CEO, whose persistent Freudian slips betray his inner turmoil of sexual frustration, betrayal and self-loathing, lurking beneath the surface of his dull financial commentary about profits and losses.

The third and final act takes place in Brico Dream, a home improvement store in which the mundanity of the office has given way to a bizarre and surreal screwball comedy where customers purchase giant batteries, and insanely powerful machinery runs amok. A far cry from the opening sequence, this is more reminiscent of a Monty Python sketch or the zany humour of a Tex Avery cartoon.

Sandwiched between these two sequences is the more thoughtful, pensive middle section, which provides the literal and metaphorical heart of the film. The acutely-observed vignettes offer meditations on happiness, loneliness, friendships, relationships, childhood and old age, as we see an impressive cross-section of society, at rest and at play, beside the park benches of the film’s title.

This commentary on the human condition encompasses: a teacher and her long-forgotten former pupil; a little boy and girl sharing a secret which no one else can know; a man who sends a paper aeroplane to attract the attention of a woman he likes; and a tramp who treats the climbing frame like a long-term partner, yelling abuse which masks a hidden tenderness. The characters are all based around stereotypes and yet, at the same time, are all recognisably individual, the product of the director’s careful observation and subtle wit. There are a number of star cameos, but Podalydès is careful to see that they never impinge on the human commentary.

It is this second part of the film which is its real raison d’être, and it is the viewer’s response to this section which is most likely to determine their response to the film. Personally I found these little vignettes a bit hit-and-miss, but there is certainly plenty to enjoy, not least in the way Podalydès uses the setting to bring out the inner child in his adult characters. Podalydès talent is for observation, for seeing the interior life of his characters, however short their time on screen and, whatever you may think of the film as a whole, you can’t help but enjoy many of these sketches. The juxtaposition between comedy and meditation on contemporary life does throw the viewer off-guard a little bit, but it is no the less effective for doing so.

Unfortunately the film’s main failing is that we see too little of any one character to really identify with them, leaving the impression that tighter editing, fewer sketches and a shorter running time would’ve made for a stronger final result.

Reviewed on: 19 Nov 2009
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Public Benches packshot
Ensemble film that sees a regular day at the office shattered when the staff notice a banner on the building opposite reading: Man Alone.
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French 2009

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