The Man in the Hat – Review

Written & Directed by John-Paul DavidsonStephen Warbeck

UK/ 200/ 94 mins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There’s a tremendous reminiscence of Dante’s Divine Comedy as The Man in the Hattraverses the B-roads of France, beginning in the inferno before ultimately finding a peaceful sense of paradise, accompanied by those he encountered along the way. Though not quite as similar as the inner circles of Hell, Ciarán Hinds’ silent protagonist finds himself desperate to flee a souring situation, after witnessing the disposal of a body one evening. With naught but the hat on his head, a photo of a mysterious woman, and a Fiat 500 full of never-ending fuel, he embarks on a whimsically comical jaunt as he is pursued by five rather cross men in their Citroën Dyane.

This rhythmic ebb and flow which places all of its chips on performance, visual and sound design rather than words, is a choice from composer turned filmmaker, Stephen Warbeck, writing and directing alongside John-Paul Davidson. There’s a grasp of the vitality of audio that only one who originated from a musical background could grasp. Little of the film has dialogue, save for principal scenes to offer exposition and play with metaphor – Hinds remains a silent protagonist, communicating through expressive reactions, mumbles, and a pair of rather intensely comical eyebrows. Hinds’ effortless ability to make the audience feel at ease in more and more ludicrously humorous escapades, even as the gang get closer and closer, never stretches into farcical.

This comedy is relaxed, coaxing a mirthful smile more than a bellyache, but this is entirely intentional. Visual jokes make up the bulk of the film, with the occasional auditory gag or misunderstanding taking place to split up the structure. Moving into the climax is where the film drags a little, and only a little. The shift from the long-staying purgatory into Hinds’ paradise of sorts has less of a transitional movement and more stumble into closure.

A visual splendour, Kaname Onoyama‘s cinematography frames the less trodden paths of France in an idyllic light. From coastal stretches to more rugged, earthen farm-scapes the manipulations of colour make The Man in the Hat a rich film, where light operates as an extended character, rather than an aesthetic device. If the funders of The Man In The Hat happen to be the French tourist board, there would be little shock, and it’s worked out perfectly.

Demonstrating throughout that their script is a playfully adept little road or journey comedy, Warbeck and Davidson capture the essence of the concept beyond the titular Man. Throughout, tiny glimpses into other stories have tiptoed into the primary narrative, sometimes influencing Hinds’ tale, but more often as mere observers. The single exception is Stephen Dillane, who takes a more defined secondary role, with a clearer finality to his story. Downtrodden and out of luck, ‘The Damp Man’ bumps into Hinds at several key moments. A guide of sorts, Dillane provides the schadenfreude from which many will seek and gain enjoyment, but not quite as much as the eventual happy ending he receives.

Chiefly an upbeat film, it’s a stark difference from many of the comedic journey movies being churned out, with much of its influence and taste located into the history of sixties European comedies. The Man in the Hat does have a breezy mystery seeded throughout which has a less than dramatic pay-off, but this was never a story of murder and secrecy. It’s the drive through a man’s purgatory as he reclaims himself and stretches beyond his comfort zones, encountering richly unique, oddball characters across a gloriously captured French backdrop – all set to a charming score, courtesy of a composer who has taken to the art of filmmaking rather dreamily.

Available in selected cinemas now and On-demand digital Mon 19 Oct 2020

Review published for The Wee Review

Little Girl (Petite Fille) – Ed Film Fest at Home

Directed & Written by Sébastien Lifshitz

France / 2020 / 90 mins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A majority of French filmmaker Sébastien Lifshitz’s library seeks to promote marginalised communities, often featuring queer experiences from France or surrounding Europe. Noted for his exceptionally delicate touch, a phantom presence where the filming itself doesn’t intrude on an authentic experience, Little Girl is no different. The film looks towards the future for young Sasha, who identifies herself from an early age as a girl, not the male body she was born in, and the struggles she and her mother face in convincing schools, friends and Sasha herself about the basic necessity of respecting who she is, and how to move forward. 

Having barely turned three, Sasha recognised something within herself – she wasn’t the boy she was born to be, but rather the girl she felt she was, trapped. When turning four, her mother Karine told her that her desires to grow up into a girl were outwith certainty. The impact was devastating, and Karine openly admits the words she spoke had likely destroyed Sasha’s life had she not reflected and grown. Without prejudice, as Sasha turns seven, both of her parents have opened their minds and are champions of Sasha’s dreams of growing up as a girl. Still understandably distraught at how she hurt her daughter, even if inadvertently, Karine is more determined than ever to pursue an understanding of gender dysphoria, and the realisation of the inevitable struggles Sasha will endure, even from such an early age.

Recognising the tenderness of Sasha’s story, the documentary rightfully allows for prolonged periods of silence. We connect with Sasha in these instances, and they’re dispersed at intermittent intervals following revelations or life events which solidify the audience’s investment. Following psychiatric and medical advice, the most significant impact is a moment many wouldn’t consider in the prospect of a transition for someone so young, the development of puberty and the hormonal battleground between the medication and questions surrounding potential children, fertility or sexual development. The frankness with which Little Girl addresses these is commendable, allowing academics and experts an unimpeded chance to explain. 

And as this is Sasha’s story, Lifshitz’s cinematography emulates this, framed almost entirely from her level, looking up or cutting off that which a young child wouldn’t see. It’s thoroughly personal, drawing the audience into the young girl’s stance in the world, fighting against everything bigger than her – both mentally and literally. Filmed in a gorgeous, wide-shot aspect, Sasha is frequently front and centre, the prima of her own little story. Lifshitz has a soft approach to the filmmaking process, deferring from imposing an impression or message, instead just relaying Sasha’s story.

It helps, as Little Girl never asks those who struggle with the concept of transgender or gender dysmorphia to confront their prejudices or misunderstanding. There is no diminishing, which is fundamentally an impressive holdback on Lifshitz’s part, and the way forward to open the conversation. Lifshitz wants to put across Sasha’s story, and her journey from the mundane to the extraordinary – though even her ‘mundane’ is picking clothes or favourite colours. In particular, a touching callback comes after Sasha has shown a distaste for blue, a gender-specified colour for boys, when the film ends on a shot of her in a soft blue, as she grows more comfortable in herself.

Inherently, Little Girl has no genuine filmmaking flaws other than a short runtime, and an abrupt ending. Its decision to detach itself from statements or morality and follow Sasha’s story as it plays out results in a pure, innocent piece of observational film which achieves the trust of a young girl facing down a pragmatic future, with the strength of character to fight against, and hopefully triumph over, all obstacles.

Review originally published for The Wee Review:

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Directed by Justin Pemberton

Based on the book by Thomas Piketty

New Zealand/ 2019/ 103 mins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

We’re halfway through 2020, a peculiar pandemic year which hosts a variety of elections, consequences, narcissistic reaches, and exposure of the toxic systems in place in a way which bathes inequalities – particularly economic – in a floodlight. As the first generation projected to earn less than their parents since the second world war, Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century encompasses everything you claimed to know on Twitter into a malleable chunk of text. Now, Justin Pemberton has re-parcelled Piketty’s book into a documentary which shows how the world has been shaped, and that how if we fail to strike a balance we are, in the politest way possible, screwed.

From French 18th century aristocracy, to the English gentry’s modern-day reproduction of wealth into the UK’s 1%, and the inherited privilege of the “rich kids” of Asia or the US, Pemberton plunges into the depths of commerce, and how capital(ism) has donned various visages over the decades. But it equally recognises the naivety of revolution or forced change and the necessity for organised institutions of education, business and yes, even government. Remarkably, in an era of cancel culture and the tantalising ease of drawing in a radical crowd, hungry to tear down a faceless giant of multinational conglomerations, Capital in the Twenty-First Century tries to present history. The fact is, as much as some regret to admit, the system is flawed, but not quite as those who circumvent it to their selfish gains.

Less a procedural expansion, more an entry point into the powerhouse, influential book, this documentary supplement to the mammoth literary counterpart condenses the source material, and offers ease of access to a wider range for those curious about the behemoth that is capitalism’s secrets. For those who prefer side-cuts and cultural references to embellish their exposition, enter director Justin Pemberton who portions the timescale into landmark film examples. From an explanation of the reality of capital’s foundations in landownership and commerce, and our acceptance of this using Pride & Prejudice, to a wider analogy with Elysium or A Tale of Two Cities, or a trivialisation, such as the French Revolution’s (attempted) abolishment of the aristocracy being boiled down to Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables.

Stepping beyond the works of Austen, much of Capital in the Twenty-First Century’s ease of access is down to its aesthetic structure, with both academics who are not only well versed in their respective fields but equally capable on camera, and enjoyable bite-sized chunks of animation and graphics. With on the nose introductions to the film with Lorde’s ‘Royals’, Pemberton again infuses the importance of cultural substances into how regularly changes or tactics in capitalism are imposed on a general populace.

Tying the knots together, albeit loosely, the documentary takes on an obvious form of narrative as we enter a present era. There’s a horrific harkening to the downtrodden who are vulnerable to the rise of fascism, racism or inward hatred of immigration similar, to the delusional influence of nationalism and prejudice in the spark of the second world war. Sound familiar yet? And while the empty, spiteful tones of Trump and Farage are only heard briefly, Pemberton designs the film in such a way as to allow the audience the grace of beating him to the punch.

Sadistically affable and engaging, though expectedly irksome, Pemberton finds no solution – but did we expect one? The answer to the world’s financial inequalities and wealth distribution will likely not come from the hands of filmmakers. But frustratingly, rather than questioning options or attempts, Capital in the Twenty-First Century’s focus lies squarely on the ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘when’, yet isn’t keen on investigating the ‘what now?’. 

Review originally published for The Wee Review: