A BENCH IN THE PARK
(Un banco en el parque)

Directed by Agusti Vila. Spain. 1999.


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Twenty-something Juan has split up with Teresa, following her decision to go abroad to London to do a degree. After hearing a man at a greyhound track say that he bets on the number six dog every time, Juan feels that the only proper way to find a new girl is to place himself at the mercy of pure chance, by sitting on the same park bench for a precise period every afternoon, and at the same table in a particular bar every evening. He tries to justify this in long conversations with his new flatmate and with two very different girls, the cynical Alicia and the bookish Ana, who turn up at each of his predetermined locations. He ends up with neither of them.

Copyright BFI Exhibition. All Rights Reserved.Sounds familiar? Yes, we’re in Eric Rohmer territory, except that A Bench in the Park is set in Barcelona and written by first-time director Agusti Vila. So much is it an hommage to Rohmer, in fact, that a dinner-table conversation includes discussion of one of the French veteran’s masterworks, The Green Ray, one of the diners being a vegetarian just like the heroine of that film. Apart from Bunuel, Erice, and the occasional Almodovar, I am unfamiliar with Spanish cinema, and A Bench in the Park certainly comes across as more French than Spanish. 

Playing with ideas of chance is not, of course, original in cinema. Rohmer himself explored "Pascal’s wager" in My Night With Maud. Much of Kieslowski’s output concerns the chance interconnectedness of otherwise separate lives, and one of his films, Blind Chance, is based on a 3-way "what if?" scenario (shamelessly copied in the more recent Sliding Doors). One of the best new releases of 2001, Haneke’s Code Unknown, develops from an initial chance meeting. Bresson’s masterpiece Au Hasard ("by chance") Balthazar tells of a donkey who, by his very nature, is totally acted upon by the chance events and people of his life. Vila’s film has a further approach, namely that the central character, by putting himself at the mercy of chance, has made a positive decision to become totally passive. One could read this as a study of a certain psychological type, so lacking in self-confidence that he doesn’t want his own actions to affect events, yet Juan doesn’t seem to be this type.

A Bench in the Park is enjoyable enough as a light romantic comedy, although the central premise seems little more than a peg on which to hang the story. The performances, led by Alex Brendemuhl, Victoria Freire, and Monica Lopez, are excellent, especially as Vila almost totally avoids cross-cutting during the lengthy conversations, thus placing more demands on the actors. The camera is hand-held throughout, most strikingly when it continually circles around the table during one of the two dinner-parties where Juan’s friends are trying to fix him up with someone, whom he rejects each time because it is all prearranged.

A film to see once, but probably once only.

Alan Pavelin
 

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