Film Review – The Man in the Hat

The Man in the Hat
starring Ciarán Hinds, directed by John-Paul Davidson and Stephen Warbeck

There’s a theory, when it comes to reviews – of anything – that the reviewer needs to have a background, some level of expertise, to be able to effectively assess that which they are reviewing. In food writing, food critics will insist that to write a good review, there should be an understanding of how the food was made, flavoured, grown, etc. Meanwhile, sites like Yelp thrive on reviews based on whether or not an individual liked the taste of what they ate and little more. Does knowledge change our level of enjoyment and understanding of something?

I bring this up here because it’s an important point when it comes to The Man in the Hat as well as the reviews of this film published so far.

The Man in the Hat is a delightful, charming, even sweet film about a tall man driving around southern France in a small car. He is pursued by a group of men in another small vintage car, and along the way he encounters a cast of recurring characters and themes. There is almost no dialogue, and the man has an odd sadness about him, related to the photograph of a woman that he keeps on the passenger seat of his car, although we’re never shown exactly why, or who she might be. Events happen, the people he meets all grow and change in some way and then he goes home, seemingly lighter and happier than when he arrived.

Released in the UK in October 2020, reviews of The Man in the Hat are positive, but middling. Most of them appear to be cribbed from the press release (I’ve yet to see a review that does not mention the make and model of the cars, something which is mostly irrelevant to the plot of the story, but which was included in the promo material), and based on a specious view of the film, possibly just of the trailer. Which makes me wonder a lot about the expertise of these reviewers in their chosen field because even from the trailer it’s obvious that The Man in the Hat is an homage to French actor/director/producer Jacques Tati. If you’re a film expert, you should know who Jacques Tati is.

In interviews director Stephen Warbeck is clear about the references to Tati. He loves the work of Tati and wanted to honour it. So as we watch the expressive face of Irish actor Ciarán Hinds as the Man in the Hat, comparisons to Tati are obvious. And then throughout the film, references begin to appear. They’re subtle little Easter eggs, and Warbeck often pulls back or offers a funny twist rather than to fully copy a particular scene, character, or setting; for instance a group of racing cyclists enter a town square (references to Tati’s Jour de Fete) and look like they’re going to start circling a large fountain (references Tati’s film Playtime where a bus gets caught in traffic on a roundabout) but they stop before making a full rotation. If you get the reference, there’s a moment where the viewer is left holding their breathe – will he take those cyclists all the way around that fountain or not?

Other references are just as subtle – we see the man’s striped socks when he loses a shoe down a storm drain (Tati’s character M. Hulot always wore striped socks), a boat floating away (M. Hulot’s Holiday), his midday lunch on the hood of his car (Traffic), the chevalier chess piece in the man’s pocket (Parade), the fruit vendors and the man’s nap near a dry fountain (Mon Oncle). There are nods to other French films as well; a ferry ride near the beginning where the man finds himself near a white horse echos the opening credits for Jacques Demy’s Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, and the whole sub-plot of the man being chased by a bunch of angry bald guys in a Citroen reminded me of Jean-Jacques Benieux’s Diva.

British reviews have compared the man to Mr. Bean, and rightly so; Rowan Atkinson’s beloved Bean is also a straight-up homage to Tati’s Hulot, to the point where he’s cribbed, beat for beat, some of Tati’s gags, including one in which the character of Hulot puts on a pair of swim trunks over a suit and then manages to fully remove the suit. This scene, sadly, has been cut from the more well-known versions of M. Hulot’s Holiday (Criterion bills theirs as the “complete” version, but it’s still missing many minutes of footage that contains this amazing scene as well as gags that set up jokes later in the film, which causes their version to suffer because of it); Warbeck acknowledges this cut footage by a magical quick-change scene where the man walks behind a tree and appears, in the next frame, in his swimming gear.

So it is worth watching The Man in the Hat if you’re not a devoted Tati fan? It does stand on its own in terms of being an enjoyable film; it’s pretty, with lush scenery shots; funny with lots of pranks and pratfalls; the plot is subtle, but we see the man and the rest of the characters experiencing growth and change to give us a satisfying ending. And the many characters the man meets are separate from the Tati theme; the wet man, the woman in the red dress, the biker, and even the angry men are all unique characters that make the film funny and poignant. You don’t need to know Tati’s work to enjoy The Man in the Hat, but those who do will enjoy it more.

I would just have liked if the writers who reviewed the Man in the Hat had mentioned this so curious readers/film watchers can approach the film from that angle and potentially delve further into Tati’s body of work to see what all the fuss is about. Understanding Warbeck’s intention through, you know, knowledge about historical films, might have opened more eyes to both what he has accomplished and who he is honouring with this work. As it is, the average critic ratings of 3.5/5 or 6/10 demonstrate that the reviewers didn’t really get the film in the way it was intended. That may translate to public perception of the film as well, and I hope more reviewers take the time to understand/explain the film to the uninitiated.

For my part, it was an absolute joy to watch and is a film that I’ll likely re-watch again and again. And like my hope that it will inspire others to learn more about the films of Jacques Tati, it’s inspired me to return to that back catalogue, both to enjoy Tati’s magnificent work and to see what else I might have missed in The Man in the Hat.