It’s hard to watch “The Man in the Hat” and not think of the great Jacques Tati. The late French mime, actor, and filmmaker conceived some of my very favorite comedies, several of them centering around his bumbling yet good-natured Monsieur Hulot character. Tati’s films were known for their meticulously choreographed visual gags and their distinct lack of dialogue. The comedy element of “The Man in the Hat” isn’t as broad or pronounced as something like “Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday” or “Jour de fete”. But it taps into some of the same things that made those Tati films so special.
The wonderfully expressive Ciarán Hinds plays the titular protagonist in what is essentially a dialogue-free role. But the seasoned Irish actor is more than capable of conveying all the emotions we need through his gentle manner, tender smiles, and melancholy gaze. Other than that it’s a grunt here, a mumble there, and one barely audible “Merci”.
We first meet the man sitting at a cafe in a cozy seaside town with nothing but a newspaper and a framed picture of a woman. Later, as the sun sets over the warmly lit harbor, he still sits at the same table, now munching on dinner. That’s when he observes a puttering Citroën Dyane pull up next to the water. Out of it pours five full-grown men who toss what appears to be a dead body into the sea. Realizing they’ve been seen, the five men approach the cafe which sends the man scurrying. He hops into his dark blue Fiat 500 and so begins this relaxed charm-soaked jaunt across the French countryside.
As the man travels the narrow country backroads of rural France, his hat on his head and the woman’s picture safely sitting next to him in the passenger’s seat, we’re treated to a delectable medley of music, food, and scenery. And just as captivating is the rich and unique assortment of people the man meets on his journey, many turning up again and again as he drives from town to town. Among them, a sad forlorn man in a soggy suit, a curious young couple with a tape measure, the five suspicious men in the Citroën Dyane, and perhaps most notably a beguiling women in a red dress on a bicycle (played by Sasha Hails).
In one sense the movie is a tasty roadtrip comedy, more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny. There’s also a lightly-breaded mystery baked into the story that encourages us to wonder. Who is the woman in the picture? Where is the man going? What does it all mean? And then there are the more life-affirming elements that seem particularly welcomed in these divided times. Armed with a buoyant spirit and a steady observant rhythm throughout, the movie asks us to stop, sit down, and appreciate the simple things that are too often taken for granted.
All of this comes from the creative minds of John-Paul Davidson and Stephen Warbeck who serve as both co-writers and co-directors. Their predominantly wordless odyssey is as beautiful as it is easy-going, with DP Kaname Onoyama’s camera showing just as much affection for the characters as it does the lush rolling hills or the stunning scenic overlooks. And he shoots each little town in a way that somehow accentuates their character and charm. None of it is aggressively picturesque, but it’s a key component that’s grafted into the very fabric of the story.
Just as important is the music. “The Man in the Hat” marks Warbeck’s directorial debut but he’s no stranger to cinema. An accomplished composer, Warbeck won an Oscar for his “Shakespeare in Love” score. Here he uses an eclectic blend of strings, horns, accordion, and piano to create one of his film’s most essential languages. Together with a couple of well placed songs, the entire musical arrangement is a soothing blend of local sound and emotional resonance. It’s simple yet effective and it’s my favorite soundtrack of the year so far.
In case you can’t tell, I loved “The Man in the Hat”. Davidson and Warbeck have made a simple yet savory feast for the senses that feels plucked out of a bygone era of cinema history. The film is a tender and heartfelt reminder to appreciate the little things in life and to hold onto the special moments. It reminds us of how the smallest acts of kindness can effect someone’s life in a profound way. The man’s touching adventure is filled with people from all walks of life who are willing to lend a hand. Perhaps in a day where people cling to their differences and are quick to tear each other apart, these messages are more needed more than we realize. “The Man in the Hat” opens in select theaters and on VOD this Friday (May 14th).