Kernel Rating (out of 5):
Length: 96 minutes
MPAA Rating: NR
Age Appropriate for: 13+. There’s talk of suicide and a drug overdose, and a sad subplot concerning the deaths of a pet and a tenant in the apartment building, but there’s no real cursing, violence or sex. The discussions about the meaning of life and tensions between social classes, however, would best benefit older teens and adult viewers.
What animal would you be? ‘The Hedgehog’ makes a case for the private and elegant creature, and in its discussion crafts a subtly fine film about the various ways we see — or don’t see — people all around us.
By Roxana Hadadi
I’m not a huge fan of self-important children in movies. The character Mattie Ross in “True Grit” was fine, because the girl had real problems — avenging her father’s murder, caring for her family, important stuff like that. I can get with characters like that. They have purpose.
It’s harder to garner sympathy or empathy for brattier, more precocious ones, though, like the insufferable “protagonist” of “Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer” or the wise-cracking son of Hugh Jackman’s character in the upcoming boxing-robots movie “Real Steel.” And when I began watching “The Hedgehog,” a 2009 French film just now being released in the U.S., I sighed at the young Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic), an 11-year-old girl who has decided to kill herself after her 12th birthday because she can’t stand her rich family and doesn’t want to grow up into a bored, upper-class adult. She pouts, sulks under her mop of blond hair and has the most stylish collection of striped sweaters. Obviously, my jealousy over her winter-wear helped swing my judgments against her.
But “The Hedgehog,” based on the 2006 best-selling French novel “The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” tempers Paloma with strong, emotionally riveting performances from Josiane Balasko, who plays her upper-class apartment building’s janitor, Renée Michel, and Togo Igawa, who portrays the building’s new tenant, the absurdly rich Japanese businessman Kakuro Ozu. Balasko as Ms. Michel is gruff, matter-of-fact and polite enough to the building’s residents to show her character’s disconnect with them; Igawa as Mr. Ozu is thoughtful, charming and just like a fairy godmother, dropping into Paloma’s and Ms. Michel’s lives and bringing them together in an unexpected way. He doesn’t give them a pumpkin carriage or fairy slippers or anything, but his presence is a calming one that helps soothe the film along.
For the most part, “The Hedgehog” will creep up on you. It’s a slow but meaningful film that has purpose in every scene; there’s some lacking character development (and the abruptness of the movie’s ending kept me from totally loving it), but it’s quiet and subtle in the ways it portrays how these people interact with each other. Do you know your neighbors? Do you even care to? Do you know your family? Do you even like them? There are questions about relationships, friendships and social status that drive “The Hedgehog,” but it’s not a heavy-handed analysis of class warfare. It’s more polite, more French, than that, and is ultimately more effective this way.
The film begins with Paloma (Le Guillermic), who lives in “in a rich person’s apartment” in Paris with a father in government who cares about his family, but more about his job; a mother who for years has been in therapy and is addicted to antidepressants; and an older sister transfixed by her boyfriend and her thesis. No one seems to have any time for Paloma, who goes to school and back on her own every day and, as a hobby, has begun videotaping everything around her before she kills herself on her 12th birthday. “For a long time now I’ve known I’m heading for the fishbowl,” Paloma says. “The fishbowl isn’t for me.” Instead she thinks what you do at the moment of your death defines who you are, so perhaps her creativity with filmmaking will put a stamp on meaning on her life if she indeed kills herself. Perhaps.
Less morbid but similarly lonely is Ms. Michel (Balasko), the building’s janitor, who keeps to herself and is ignored by the building’s residents; they could never guess that she adores Russian literature, spending her nights reading huge novels with a slab of dark chocolate at her side. They see her as “ugly, old and surly,” she notes, and she does nothing to combat that idea. Like a hedgehog, she curls herself away from everyone, her prickliness a defense mechanism against society’s judgments.
Would Paloma and Ms. Michel ever meaningfully cross paths? Doubtful. It’s only with the arrival of Mr. Ozu (Igawa), genteel and insightful, that the young girl and middle-aged woman slowly are drawn to each other. He knows Ms. Michel is smarter than everyone thinks when she quotes “Anna Karenina” absent-mindedly to him, and he understands Paloma’s boredom and loneliness when he learns about her creative pursuits. “You also think she has a secret?” Paloma asks of Mr. Ozu regarding Ms. Michel, but the three soon form their own triangle that is devoid of any pretention or untruth. How the points of that triangle interact, and what each of them brings to the lives of the others, defines the emotional core of “The Hedgehog.”
It’s easy to dislike Le Guillermic as Paloma during the first half-hour or so of “The Hedgehog,” when she just seems whiny and over-privileged, but director Mona Achache — who wrote the screenplay as an adaptation of Muriel Barbery’s original novel — slowly eases her into a character more worthy of our understanding. While Paloma grows into someone the audience can enjoy, Ms. Michel just is. With wealthy residents so often looking down their noses at her, Ms. Michel may as well not even exist; it’s her humor, growing appreciation of herself and burgeoning friendship with Mr. Ozu that give her glowing life. She’s not a curmudgeon, she’s just a lady thrown off-guard by ramen soup and bidet toilets and the idea that anyone could be interested in her for any reason. Her progression is the film’s greatest joy.
But Balasko’s fine performance can’t fix the ending of “The Hedgehog,” which is of course dependant on how Barbery’s novel ends. Yet it feels abrupt in a bad way, and regardless of Barbery’s original conclusion, the film version of “The Hedgehog” leaves us wanting more thanks to methods that seem unfulfilled. Such is life, I suppose, but that keeps “The Hedgehog” from complete perfection.