The Man in the Hat is a weird whimsical hybrid: a homage to Jacques Tati and a semi-musical travelogue in a fantasy version of France. In The Man in a Hat‘s France there is no fast food, no Japanese cars, no smartphones. The car The Man drives is a Fiat 500, the original, tiny, tin-boxy version not the more chi-chi modern one.
He jumps into it sharpish after the opening scene, when The Man (as the credits call him) spots a gang of unsavoury gentleman heaving something human-shaped into the sea one balmy evening. They’d not realised he was there, enjoying a glass of wine and a plate of something tasty outside a tiny restaurant, but suddenly they do. They advance. He jumps into his car and floors it.
For a short while it looks like a chase movie, The Man beetling along in his Fiat 500, the “mafia”, as he’s sure they are, giving chase, all five of them bundled into a Citroen Dyane, another antique.
And then he gives them the slip and, for a while at least, The Man goes on his way, bumbling around the sun-drenched South of France and the Cevennes, bumping into the same characters repeatedly, among them a couple in hi-vis jackets measuring stuff (The Measurers), an attractive woman (The Woman) dressed in red, a character first encountered standing in a stream (hence his name, The Damp Man).
Ciarán Hinds plays The Man, the hat a nod to Tati, who also generally wore one, and his face a series of oh’s and ah’s, tiny smiles and winces. He has no dialogue, apart from a handful of words, one of which is “merci” when served a coffee in a cafe. But then no one in this film really speaks.
And that’s it, more or less, Hinds in a car going to one place then another, drinking a coffee, a glass of wine, eating a plate of something delicious, nodding to locals, making eyes at the attractive woman, jumping every time the “mafia” happen to come around the corner again. It would be unusual enough if left just there, but this is a writing/directing collaboration between John-Paul Davidson (who has a history of making TV travelogue shows) and Stephen Warbeck, a musician whose score for Shakespeare in Love won him an Oscar. And it really is a collaboration. Music erupts everywhere. At one point, while The Man is eating a meal, a fellow diner (the celebrated tenor Mark Padmore, in fact) suddeny bursts into song, at another a trio of young women appear in The Man’s car as if from nowhere and sing a folky lament, there’s a gypsy band, a ladies choir, songs on the soundtrack, jazz on the soundtrack, music music music.
So then, a musically inclined tribute to Jacques Tati. In a logline that’s what we’ve got.
Tati was also given to film titles that were staggeringly literal, let’s remember – Mr Hulot’s Holiday (about Mr Hulot on holiday), My Uncle (about an uncle) and so on. And if you’re Tati-agnostic, a lot of the comedy is of the not-very-funny variety. At one point The Man’s car breaks down and he’s taken in by two ageing brothers (lovers?) and shares a meal with them. Sausages and boiled eggs. Comedy foods, in a Tati universe at any rate.
So you might not laugh but you will be charmed. Sun, wine, movement and pretty views, The Man in the Hat bounces along with the momentum of a good travelogue but is also freighted with an underlying sadness that’s more than just Hinds’s big expressive eyes doing their thing.
There are no bad people in this film. Even the “mafia” are not who they at first seem. Big misunderstanding. Relief all round. The film should still come with some sort of warning though. What with Hinds and another of the actors (Stephen Dillane aka The Damp Man) having Game of Thrones on their CVs, disappointment lurks for the less wary visitor expecting dragons. Here be none.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021