A few months ago, a friend recommended the low-key Euro comedy The Man in the Hat to me as “stress relief/anti-anxiety medication.” One waitlisted library DVD loan later, I totally get what he meant. The Man in the Hat is a fluffy, distinctly French comedy of whimsies (despite its British director). It follows a mostly wordless man’s casual escape from mild-mannered gangsters, both sides traveling in teensy tiny Euro cars across the French countryside. There’s a vague threat of violence in that chase, and a hint of sadness in the affable protagonist’s desperate grip on a black & white portrait of his wife. Those motions towards conflict are only an excuse for a provincial road trip, though, so we can eavesdrop on the quirky characters, feral kittens, and communal parties that decorate rural France. It all amounts to an unrushed, calming amusement, interrupted only by snack breaks and an occasional folk tune.
The most obvious comparison point for The Man in the Hat‘s gentle, largely silent storytelling style is the equally French (“and fucking proud of it”) comedy of Jacques Tati, particularly the Monsieur Hulot series. In practice, it reminded me a lot of the low-key dark humor of Aki Kaurismaki, especially in its clash of twee whimsy with crime-world brutality and old-fashioned rock n’ roll cool. As calming & endearing as The Man in the Hat feels for most of its runtime, its central drama is hinged on some truly bleak motivators: a dead spouse, a botched suicide attempt, an accidental witness to a body being dumped into a city canal. In the Kaurismaki version of this story (in the tradition of The Man Without a Past or The Other Side of Hope), there would be much sharper shocks of gang violence, character-quirk humor, and political commentary than what The Man in the Hat is interested in delivering. This French/British echo of the Finnish humorist’s work is too mild-mannered to attempt anything other than self-amused twee, but it does match Kaurismaki’s eye for low-key romance & communal joy in the harshest of circumstances – even ending at an outdoor concert that feels like a direct hat-tip to his work.
To underline its function as “anti-anxiety medication”, The Man in the Hat often looks like a TV commercial for anti-depressants (or maybe just antihistamines, depending on the set-piece). Most of the sun-dappled road trip through lightly breezy vistas is populated by cautiously optimistic archetypes learning to have fun again in open fields, European cafes, and spontaneous block parties. Occasionally, the mood will shift in a wistful music video interlude lit by red brake lights or sparsely placed candles, but we’re often back on the road seconds later, “walking on sunshine” on our road to recovery. This is by no means a flashy movie, nor a challenging one. It’s just nice. There are likely more effective “anti-anxiety medications” out there on the market, but none that would pair this safely with a glass of wine (much less any that you could access for free through your local public library).