If a mere Madeleine could send Proust “In Search of Lost Time,” surely a bon bon of a movie can inspire a reverie of films and times past, trips taken and those that lie on every traveler’s elusive “Bucket List.”
“The Man in the Hat” is a gloriously simple unalloyed delight. Put an actor in a tiny, vintage car, plop him in the South of France, surround him with quirky recurring characters and stunning spring scenery, and take away his gift of dialogue.
Let the sight gags and oddball set-ups commence.
The great Irish actor Ciarán Hinds, who first gained notice on this continent in “Circle of Friends” and “Persuasion,” a star of “Road to Perdition” and more lately of “Red Sparrow,” the Harry Potter movies and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” would seem an unlikely candidate to try his hand at material more suited to Mr. Bean. But here he is, vamping a little Jacques Tati, lightly mugging and reacting in a film that can only be summed up as “Monsieur Hinds’ Holiday.”
He has a couple of lines — sentence fragments. But that’s it.
He’s just a traveler in the the small towns of the South of France (mostly Saint-André-de-Majencoules and Le Vigan and environs), a silent man who samples the cuisine and motors between auberges (inns), cafes, food trucks and pubs in a 1960s sun-roofed Fiat 500.
He wears a plain blue shirt and jeans, which match the Fiat. And he wears a hat. So that’s what he’s attired in when he finishes off his anchovies, asparagus and wine at a picture postcard harborside in the opening scene.
That’s where he spies five mugs piling out of ancient Citroën 2CV — an unlikely sight to start with — pulling out what looks like a body and dropping it into the bay.
They spy him, too. As he makes his getaway, little can know that he will spend the movie eluding this clown car and its inhabitants all through France.
Every town is prettier and more quaint than the last, every narrow back road half as scenic as the next.
But that’s the way things work in this world. He’s forever stumbling into them, into two government employees (Amit Shah, Zoé Bruneau) in yellow traffic vests simply measuring things, into the striking women (Maïwenn, of the horror classic “High Tension”) on a bicycle in a red dress, the very essence of “France” every time we see her.
There’s a chef (Muna Otaru of the brilliant but little-seen “The Keeping Room”). And then there’s the helpful, downcast and equally silent bearded stranger, played by the sturdy British character actor Stephen Dillane (“Game of Thrones,””Darkest Hour,” “The Greatest Game Ever Played”).
The bearded stranger helps The Man retrieve his hat, which he’s dropped into a river under a tiny, Romanesque bridge.
That’s the level of “action” this charming film serves up — a lost hat, stepping in dog doo and losing a shoe, an attempt to return a forgotten purse to the woman on the bike (she keeps running into him, and wanting nothing to do with him), a Fiat surrounded by Alpine goats on the edge of the Pyrenees, car trouble as he makes the Fiat climb those mountains, a shared meal with two screwball brothers whose cuisine and home brew make The Man wince.
The Man overhears conversations, a woman gossiping with a girlfriend about cheating on her man, an innkeeper telling her tale of lost love to a man who’s attempted suicide in her establishment.
The Man in the Hat keeps the framed photo of a woman in the car, even as he offers the occasional lift to strangers.
Every so often, he stumbles back into the Bearded Man and The Chef. He’s stopped by the measuring team. And he’s got to escape another “trap” when he runs into those five thugs in the 2CV.
There’s not a lot to this, but what’s here can feel like carefully curated comic perfection. Hinds is downright adorable as the lead, taking us on the dream French vacation foreigners hope for. Even car trouble drops him into a garage run by women who sing “The Song of Forgotten Cars” (car models make up the lyrics, in French) and “The Song of Forgotten Cigarettes” as they work.
A tenor breaks into a romantic Italian lament at dinner, joined by a guitarist — a female vocal trio joins the Man in the Hat in the Fiat for an acapella dream sequence.
I don’t want to oversell a film so slight in its charms, one that relies on the most basic of sight gags. But something about “The Man in the Hat” and its timing, at the tail end of a travel-banned pandemic, makes this petite picture a postcard-shot delight.
The co-directors are a fellow (John-Paul Davidson) known for filming British celebrity travelogues with Stephen Fry and Michael Palin, and a composer (Stephen Warbeck), which explains the film’s musical quality, and its buy-this-soundtrack score of ballads, classics and pop.
I’m already pining for a sequel. Round up everybody, put Monsieur Hinds in a Triumph Vitesse, and follow him through his native Ireland. What say, kids?
MPA Rating: unrated, threat of violence
Cast: Ciarán Hinds Stephen Dillane, Maïwenn, Muna Otaru, Brigitte Roüan, Amit Shah, Zoé Bruneau
Credits: Scripted and directed by John-Paul Davidson, Stephen Warbeck. A Gravitas Ventures release.
Running time: 1:35