The Hedgehog (Le hérisson) (Director: Mona Achache): Based on the best-selling novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, this 2009 film is finally getting a theatrical release on this side of the world. Alas, it’s only in the US for now, but I figure that I have at least a few readers outside of the Toronto area.
Precocious and bored, 11-year-old Paloma decides that on her 12th birthday, she will end her life. She’s sick of her parents and older sister and their comfortable bourgeois lifestyle. She compulsively films them with a hand-me-down video camera and protests that she doesn’t want to live like a goldfish in a fishbowl. She’s incredibly bright and wants more from life, but doesn’t see a way to get it.
Ms. Michel, the widowed janitor of the luxury building where she lives, seems like she might be a kindred spirit, but she’s extremely private. Everything changes on the day that Mr. Ozu moves into the building. This cultured older Japanese man pays no attention to the class differences and petty jealousies of the other tenants, striking up conversations with both Paloma and Ms. Michel within days of his arrival.
An offhand remark involving a quote from Tolstoy (Mr. Ozu begins the quote and Ms. Michel finishes it) kindles a deeper curiosity and before long he has asked her to dinner. If you haven’t guessed already, Renée (as we discover is Ms. Michel’s first name) is the hedgehog of the title. As described by Paloma, she is prickly on the outside, but only to hide her inner elegance. No, I’m not sure how a hedgehog could be described as elegant, either, but it’s a memorable description. Paloma begins to spend more time with Renée and tells her that as a janitor, she has found a “perfect hiding place,” as if the older woman had simply chosen to be a building janitor out of a panoply of other career options.
Our trio of characters are all highly intelligent and lonely outsiders, and so naturally they come together, but everything seems just a bit too neat. An 11-year-old like Paloma, who draws and paints at a high level, plays Go and speaks some Japanese could really only exist in a novel (or a movie). Renée is another variation on the crusty character who really has a heart of gold. Worst of all, Mr. Ozu is the Franco-Asian equivalent of the “magical negro,” an exotic character who dispenses wisdom and brings the other characters together while we really know nothing about his own motivations.
But while the film is schematic and (mostly) predictable, it remains enjoyable, mostly for me due to Josiane Balasko’s performance as Renée. A veteran comic actor (she played the Jennifer Saunders’ part in the French version of Absolutely Fabulous) and an accomplished director in her own right, she portrays a lonely woman’s bewilderment at being desired with subtlety and grace. I also loved the occasional use of animation to illustrate some of Paloma’s inner struggles.
As someone who has not read the source novel, I can’t comment on whether it is a faithful adaptation, but based upon the amount of voiceover narration by Paloma, I expect that the novel would allow us similar access to the inner lives of both Renée and of Mr. Ozu. As well, because Paloma’s story seems to be the central thread, I wasn’t certain whether I was watching a film aimed more at the adolescent set than at a more general audience.