The Man in the Hat, PG. 96 minutes. 3 stars
Hardly anyone exchanges a word in this gentle, charming comedic road trip across rural France. While the dialogue is minimal, people communicate in other ways, through gesture and expression and especially through music.
Music figures prominently, as it does on the best road trips. Stephen Warbeck, one of the film's two directors, has a list of movie credits as composer as long as my arm, but this is his first directorial effort. He has also written the score here.
Warbeck has shared the writing and direction with documentarian, John-Paul Davidson. This is interesting, because this film has a sharp eye for human behaviour and interaction.
The protagonist at the wheel, the man in the titular fedora, is played by Belfast-born actor Ciaran Hinds. He doesn't have much to say, and is an undemanding travel companion. If he seems a little on the sad side, he is quick to respond to the simple pleasures in life.
His reticence may be the result of being a Brit in France, unsure about his accent and command of the host language. Or it may be that he simply wishes to be alone with his thoughts and memories. Or he may be focused on keeping clear of some tough types driving a Citroen Dyane who he thinks he saw dispose of a body.
Reasons are hard to discern, but the framed black and white photo of an attractive young woman on the passenger seat gives a pretty broad hint.
Instead of driving an iconic Citroen too, "the man" is at the wheel of a tiny Fiat, the 500. Hind's imposing frame can somehow fit inside but he might have been more comfortable in that sturdy, French classic, the Citroen 2CV.
However, it's lucky for "the man" that when he runs into mechanical trouble, he encounters a couple of local farmers who have the mechanical expertise to get his Fiat back on the road. These two are particularly silent types, but good hosts who ensure their guest doesn't go hungry and has a bed for the night.
The encounter with the "damp man" (Stephen Dillane), in his jacket and sodden cowboy boots, is probably the most difficult interaction. But even he eventually responds to the music that is at the heart of this film.
At a hotel, when the customers including the hatted protagonist and the "damp man" eat in silence together, two of the diners break into song accompanied by guitar. It's a sublime moment on this musical journey.
From folk to jazz, opera to soul, music is happening everywhere, bringing people together in The Man in the Hat. An impromptu choir sings in the garagiste workshop while playing wrenches and pipes. Even at the convention that "the man" is briefly forced to attend, someone draws music from a line of wine glasses.
There isn't a musical instrument or genre that doesn't enhance the beautiful scenery of south-central France. Much of the shoot took place in the Cevennes.
The Man in the Hat has a close affiliation with the silent comedy traditions that inspired masters of French humour, like Jacques Tati, whose wonderful film Mon Oncle is a comedy classic. Director Warbeck has mentioned Tati's Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, another classic, as one of the films that influenced him.
None of the characters on this picaresque adventure has a personal name.
Everyone is a type, except for soul artist Nadine Lee. The musician and singer-songwriter appears as herself, belting out Try a Little Tenderness at a fair in a village square.
Many of the characters appear then reappear, like the pair of young measurers on assignment who become attracted to each other. To this extent, although The Man in the Hat is a set of comic set-pieces, there is character development, including the narrative specific to the "man in the hat" himself.
Warbeck and Davidson have created a charming, gentle film, cleverly constructed with impeccable comic timing and a wonderful score.
After over a year of confinement, beetling through France in summer, from Marseille to Dunkirk via the Cevennes, could be one of the most desirable experiences imaginable.
The Man in the Hat offers a virtual holiday in an as yet unattainable destination, for the price of a movie ticket.
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