Appellate Judge James A. Stewart's dream coffee machine would be the tallest structure on the continent.
"A message in a bottle."
Actually, it's on the side of an apartment building, but more on that later. Park Benches, known as Bancs Publics (Versailles Rive Droit) to French audiences, also features lots of park benches, some office workers, and a big box home improvement store.
Facts of the Case
Lucie (Florence Muller, Paris, Je T'Aime) sees a black-and-white banner on her building from her office window: "Homme Seul" ("Lonely Man"). Her co-workers joke about it, but Lucie's concerned about the man, enough so that she leads an expedition to try to meet him. While lunching at the nearby park, she makes a connection with one (Denis Podalydés, Mortal Transfer) of the team from Brico Dream (the big box).
The first dialogue in Park Benches comes a few minutes in, when Lucie is accosted by a group of street marketers from Brico Dream who want to sell her some shower nozzles. This was the point where I realized that I'd forgotten to turn on the English-language subtitles, and I couldn't understand the dialogue with my meager knowledge of French. I started over, and when I got back to that scene, I realized that I already had the gist and didn't really need the actual words. There are some funny lines—it's not quite Mr. Hulot's Holiday—but director Bruno Podalydés knows his way around sight gags. The tone at Lucie's office is captured quickly when you see what's on the computers—Pacman, an apartment hunt, and personal ads—and when you see the crowd gather to greet Lucie and her fellow explorers as they return from the unsuccessful attempt to meet "Homme Seul." At Brico Dream, a team member's oddly placed tool looks like, well, a tool, a big coffee machine requires some surreal giant batteries, and a game of charades explains a problem with a drill.
There are gags with words, as when a man and a woman discuss their loneliness with unknown friends on cell phones and then suddenly meet—and completely fail to hit it off. However, you'd be able to get by on just the gestures and actions of the non-couple. Occasional bits like some dirty malaprops or some trash talking on the playground do require subtitles or knowledge of French, though.
Very little of Park Benches revolves around the "Homme Seul" banner, although Lucie does eventually get to meet the lonely man and find that the mystery isn't all that mysterious. It's not quite a red herring, though, since you meet other lonely people, such as the non-couple on the cell phones, throughout the movie.
Park Benches is divided into three parts: the office segments at open and close, lunchtime at the park, and afternoon at Brico Dream. The office segments contain what there is of a plot; the park scenes mix in a lot of the local Parisian color that I've come to expect from modern French comedies, with a lot of people running radio-controlled boats on the water; and the Brico Dream segment gets really farcical.
Park Benches is a bright, cheerful-looking movie whether indoors or outdoors and you can distinguish all the overlapping dialogue.
And, if you act now, you get commercials for household products at no additional cost. They're not real commercials for real products, but the comic fake commercials that you glimpse on video screens at Brico Dream are shown in full in the bonus features. The basic gist is: Guys, if you use the glue, bindings, or aquarium cleaner featured, you might do better with the ladies. Somehow, I'm not convinced.
There are also deleted scenes, including gags with multiple punchlines (from ad libbing), some bloopers, and some that were just cut to improve flow. Bruno Podalydés introduces his film at a festival in Rome, telling the crowd he'll be watching to see what they laugh at. A Versailles museum exhibit shows props and posters from his various films; the ones from Park Benches are the most interesting, but there's a weirdness to all of them that might make you want to learn more about Podalydés. Podalydés also reads aloud a lubricant label. The director doesn't say much about his movie in any of these features; I'm a little disappointed, but it may not be such a bad thing.
A trailer for Park Benches avoids dialogue, to maybe fool you into thinking it's in English, and emphasizes the Paris scenery, not the plot.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
"With nearly 90 speaking parts" is one of the selling points on the Park Benches DVD case. That's so many that you'll barely notice Catherine Deneuve's appearance and enough to make it hard to keep track of all the characters. Take this as a warning not to expect character study.
Like a million other French films, it's also described on the cover as "Life, lust and love. The Parisian Way." There is a romance in there somewhere, and it actually is kind of sweet, but overall, Park Benches is more slapstick farce than romcom.
There are hints of a message—maybe everybody's lonely in some way or something like that—but it's not hit home that hard.
Sight gags and Parisian local color are two of my favorite things in films. Park Benches was aimed squarely at me, and I liked it a lot. Even if that isn't one of your favorite filmic taste combinations, chances are you'll smile at some of the scattershot comedy.
Not guilty. Just don't believe the aquarium cleaner's hype.
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