Title: The Hedgehog
Director: Mona Achache
Starring: Garance Le Guillermic, Josiane Balasko, Togo Igawa
Somewhere, no doubt, adult film actor and shameless publicity whore Ron Jeremy is kicking himself over finding out that there exists a movie entitled “The Hedgehog” in which he is not the star, or the beneficiary of a large life-rights check. No, director Mona Achache’s movie is no hairy skin-flick biopic, but instead a darkly comedic broadside aimed at stuffy French elitism, a movie very loosely of a sort with “Gosford Park” and the forthcoming “The Women on the 6th Floor,” written and directed by Philippe Le Guay.
Based on Muriel Barbery’s 2006 French-language novel “The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” Achache’s film played Stateside at the City of Lights City of Angels (COLCOA) Festival in 2010, and did fairly well during a subsequent commercial run in its homeland. The story centers around precocious, bespectacled 12-year-old Paloma Josse (Garance Le Guillermic, quite good), who so loathes her affluent but boring life that she hatches a plan to off herself in six months’ time. As she documents the woeful burdens of adolescence with her video camera, Paloma suddenly starts paying a bit more attention to Renee Michel (Josiane Balasko), a mid-50s widow and the reclusive superintendent of the group of eight apartments in Paris’ upper-middle class Left Bank district in which Paloma’s family lives.
Presumed a bourgeois simpleton by Paloma’s parents (whom she in turn considers insufferable snobs), Renee, though kind of dour and dumpy, is actually a refined lover of brooding Russian literature, and she and Paloma eventually strike up an unlikely friendship. Their boundaries of sociability are further extended when Renee crosses paths with a like-minded new tenant, Japanese businessman Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa). Could romantic companionship actually be on the horizon for Renee, and what would this in turn mean for the suicide plans of unwitting matchmaker Paloma?
“The Hedgehog” is somewhat unique in that everything which delights those who enjoy the movie will also be the same things which irritate those who find its class-based observations wan and its eccentricities too cutesy and pat by half. Full of allusions to other literary works, as well as art and cinema, the film recalls a sort of Gaellic “Rushmore” by way of “Harold & Maude.” There’s a tart quality to the proceedings not typically found in American offerings. Barbery is also a philosophy teacher, and the fact that she co-adapts her own work for the screen helps lend the movie’s ruminations on death and interpersonal connection (e.g., there’s a family with which you’re born, and a broader family that you can choose) more weight and resonance than they might otherwise have.
Even for those for whom the tone is a bit jarring or off-putting, “The Hedgehog” benefits from strong performances. Balasko brings layers of hidden meaning to her gruff exterior, built up over the course of many unhappy and dismissed years. Le Guillermic, meanwhile, strikes the right balance between bright and misunderstood. Sometimes, after all, the most edifying and nourishing relationships of adolescence lay outside the confines of house and home.
Written by: Brent Simon