The Hedgehog

The Hedgehog


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

"I've made my mind up," states precocious Paloma Josse (the excellent Garance Le Guillermic) into her Hi-8 Camcorder. "The day I turn 12, on June 16th next, in 161 days, I'll kill myself."

The Hedgehog may for most of its running time be an upstairs-downstairs dramedy of manners, but by opening with this disturbing declaration of suicidal intent from a pre-adolescent girl, it sets out its life-or-death stakes from the outset, casting a shadow of doom over all the quirky stylings that follow.

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Despite living in affluent comfort in a luxury Parisian apartment, Paloma sees herself as inevitably "heading for the fishbowl", predestined to repeat the unhappiness and neurosis of her bourgeois family. As the days tick by, she will gravitate towards Renée Michel (Josiane Bolasko), her building's dowdy 54-year-old concierge who, like Paloma, keeps a rich inner life hidden from others. Only Mr Kakuro Ozu (Igawa Togo), the cultured, super-rich Japanese widower who has just moved in, sees the real quality in both these women, and "the possibility of becoming what you aren't yet". But is it too late for these fish to escape their designated bowls?

In adapting philosopher Muriel Barbery's best-selling 2006 novel L'Élégance du Herisson (The Elegance Of The Hedgehog), writer/director Mona Achache lets Paloma, here naturally transformed from a keeper of written journals to a video diarist, be our sardonic guide through the absurd goings-on in her building – a hothouse of social conflict and class hypocrisy in microcosm. While Renée remains an autodidact, who has carefully concealed her literary pursuits from her employers, Achache seems altogether less confident in her audience's intellectual abilities, overexplaining the odd reference to Tolstoy and stripping away almost entirely her source's more philosophical content.

Instead, Achache focuses on Renée's Cinderella-like metamorphosis from invisible frump to haute-couture princess. Of course we root for Renée in her understated romance with Kakuro, not least because we are programmed by the expectations of genre to do so - but if truth be told, despite winning performances from both Bolasko and Igawa, the saintly Kakuro's immediate and abiding attraction to this blankly grumpy figure is never made credible.

Paloma likens Renée to a hedgehog, explaining: "She's prickly on the outside, a real fortress, but I feel that inside she's as refined as that falsely lethargic, staunchly private and terribly elegant creature." From our privileged position as viewers, we know that Paloma is right - but it is far less clear how Kakuro is able from the start to see through, let alone instantly warm to, her gruff, spiky exterior.

The relationship that develops between this odd couple just has to be taken as read, without ever quite being believed, merely because that is what the script says is so – but that is hardly a satisfying state of affairs in a story concerned so precisely with people's struggles to escape their prescribed destinies. At least, though, there is a bitter twist to this fairytale set-up, as death, hanging over the film since the outset, swoops down again at the end in a most unexpected way.

Reviewed on: 11 Mar 2011
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A precocious 11-year-old decides to kill herself on her 12th birthday.
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Director: Mona Achache

Writer: Mona Achache, Muriel Barbery

Starring: Josiane Balasko, Garance Le Guillermic, Igawa Togo, Anne Brochet, Ariane Ascoride, Wladmir Yordanoff, Sarah Le Picard, Jean-Luc Porraz

Year: 2009

Runtime: 100 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: France, Italy


French 2010

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