THE HEDGEHOG (2009)
Directed by Mona Achache
100 mins. (French with subtitles)
* * * *
The Hedgehog is that rarest of stories: one that works as well on the screen as it does on the printed page. Those who loved Muriel Barbery’s novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog (L’élégance du hérisson) will find a few changes in the film, but most of them work brilliantly. It’s now in distribution across North America and you should rush to see it.
Those unfamiliar with the story may find the story line troubling. The film centers on Paloma Josse (Garance Le Guillermic), the precocious eleven-year-old daughter of an upper-class dysfunctional Parisian family. She lives with a disinterested father, a neurotic mother, and a narcissistic older sister in a ritzy apartment complex supervised by a widowed concierge, Renée Michel (Josiane Balsako). Paloma identifies with the family’s goldfish and sees life as an exercise in frustration akin to bumping into the sides of the bowl. Life is so futile, in fact, that she plans to kill herself on her twelfth birthday, has stockpiled pills pilfered from her mother’s stash, and is busy videotaping her thoughts on the shallowness of existence and her own impending death.
Does this sound like fun? It is! I don’t want to give away too much, but let’s say that it’s not a suicide film; it’s about social class, philosophy, art, and literature. It’s about the ways in which class status and being classy is not the same thing. Above all it’s about the things we don’t see even when they’re right in front of us. Le Guillermic is riveting as Paloma--a frizzy-haired, stripped-shirted bundle of contradiction who is all of eleven in one moment, but wiser than her elders the next. The frumpy Renée is the film’s hedgehog, prickly on the outside, but possessive of an inner intellect, kindness, and curiosity that can only be seen by those who bother to look: Paloma and a new Japanese neighbor, the widower Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa). The three make up a mismatched set of musketeers, but a trio that slices away pretense to reveal essential and aesthetic truths.
Novel readers will notice that Paloma has been transformed from a diarist to an artist and videographer. This works spectacularly. The film’s small details come together as a gorgeous visual mélange and relieve the screenplay--cowritten by Barbery--of the difficulty of filming a writer’s inner thoughts. There are a few things readers will miss. The film doesn’t probe philosophy with the depth of the novel and key relationships between Renée, fellow domestic Manuela, and their mentally challenged neighbor, Tibére, are pared to the bone.
But one can only do so much in 100 minutes and the film does a remarkable job of preserving the book’s essence. Watch out for young Garance Le Guillermic; she who bears the first name of the heroine of the classic Children of Paradise looks as if she’s capable of a few classics of her own.