Greg and Zanna spend 90 minutes wondering what's going on with a man and a hat.
Number of men: >1
Number of hats: >1
Accuracy of title in retrospect: 0
In the opening scene of
The Man in the Hat there's a shot of a headline in a French newspaper: "It would be nice to have a subtitle of that," I said, wrongly assuming it may be important.
"It said something about Marseilles," Greg proudly responded.
"Mmmm yes, I got that."
"There are no subtitles in this film," he said. I presumed he was joking. We can't watch a French film without subtitles. What are we? French? But 10 minutes into the road trip through the French countryside there's not a subtitle in sight, primarily because The Man in the Hat, played by Ciaran Hinds, never utters a word. There's something about Hinds' face, his mannerisms, his French newspaper, that led me to believe he was French. Not only is he not French (he's Irish), The Man in the Hat isn't even a French film, it's a British film set in France. This film was nothing I thought it would be.
At first it appeared to be a slapstick comedy about a man trying to evade mobsters, reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin or Jacques Tati, but it becomes unexpectedly affecting. There are a handful of characters who recur throughout, popping up in each new location to perform a bit - like the two surveyors wearing hi-vis vests who somehow always find themselves staring longingly into each other's eyes: absurd but evocative.
It's co-directed by Oscar-winning composer Stephen Warbeck and it's very driven by music. There's one song in particular that moved me profoundly. It played while the man sat, lonely in his car, at night, in the bush. Like much of the film, it's inexplicable - there are suddenly three women in the car with him, singing. I didn't yet understand what was going on, but I felt his sadness.
When the film finished, I said to Greg that I recognised it was a good film but it wasn't really to my taste. Once I realised what the film was - and stopped waiting for something significant to happen - I found myself wondering when it was going to be over. My geriatric millennial brain wanted a story, preferably complicated with multiple storylines and at least two shocking twists.
And yet, reflecting on the film now, I feel moved once again by it and have a desire to watch it a second time. This may be an issue of unmet expectation. Prepare yourself for a film not of this era - a gentle, nonsensical journey through France with a silent protagonist and physical hijinks - and allow yourself to be moved not by the story but by the feeling the film evokes.
Also, Greg was wrong, there were some subtitles.
When the movie finished, I told Zanna I liked it and she replied that she didn't. When I asked why, she said it wasn't her "thing".
The next day, while she was writing her review, I said, "Do you want to know what I thought about the film?"
"Nope," she said.
I said, "Since it's a review where we talk about a film, it might be useful to know why I like it."
"Nope," she said again, "I don't write about you every week."
The movie is almost entirely free of dialogue and traditional story structure, which narrows the possibilities for a viewer's focus. I was quickly seduced by the beauty. It wasn't just the visual appeal of the extravagantly open landscapes, but also the design and implementation of the soundtrack and the way both interacted with the mysterious, melancholic expressiveness of the central character and his guileless face, to create something deeply affecting. This is to say I saw in the Man in the Hat the power and alchemy of the film-making process.
It's not that there's no story, but it's vague and ethereal: Something is afoot with the man in the hat, and we know not what. He spends most of the film driving a Fiat 500, carrying with him a photo of a woman whose identity we never learn. He has weird encounters with people who might be real or might represent an absent other in his life, or might serve both purposes. Actor Ciaran Hinds imbues him with a touching melancholic optimism. At one stage, he writes an intensely moving and cryptic message on a tree, which entirely changes the way we see him. Here is a person that appears to have been through great suffering and may still be going through great suffering, but he is still going. Because of this, and because of where he is going, and because of other things both visible and not, I wanted to go with him, and was happy I did.
I can't wait to find out why Zanna didn't.
The Man in the Hat is screening now at the French Film Festival.