The Hedgehog (Le hérisson)

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
The Hedgehog (Le hérisson)

The Hedgehog (Le hérisson)
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Eleven-year old Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic)  is a very serious and intelligent schoolgirl living in Paris. With her fathers Hi-8 video camera, she follows her mother, father and other adults around and decides that she does not want to grow up to be like them and will commit suicide on her 12th birthday. This decision will be tested when two other grown ups in her building show her the meaning of life in “The Hedgehog.”

Gallic filmmakers have always had a special place for children in movies since Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” and before. Newcomer feature film writer-director Mona Achache takes the novel by Muriel Barbery and creates a thoughtful, funny/sad story about a little girl coming of age. Paloma is not just smart. She is a gifted young artist, too, and both draws and videotapes the people around her. One of subjects, the surly concierge of the building, Madame Michel (Josiane Balasko) attracts Paloma’s interest, especially when a new tenant, Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa), arrives on the scene.

These two people, so very different over some things, both have keen intellects, are well-read and appreciate the classics, both prose and music. Mr. Ozu sees something special in plain, dowdy Renee Michel and invites her to dinner in his apartment. They discuss their favorite things and, for the first time in many years, Renee feels like a woman. This sweet acquaintance, all the while, is being observed by the inquisitive Paloma and her plan to commit suicide comes in to question for the youngster.

“The Hedgehog” is the kind of good-hearted and likable film that makes you want the lives of its subject to continue being explored, even as the credits roll. This is due, principally, to the performances of the central characters and each changes and flows in different ways. Paloma is the storyteller, here, and the influence of Renee and Mr. Ozu will change her life. Dour Renee is resistant to Kakuro’s attentions, thinking herself too plain and lowly for the likes of the elegant and wealthy gentleman. He, though, sees the diamond in the rough that she is and will not be deterred.

The other adults around Paloma, the reason she decides to kill herself, include her neurotic mother, Colombe (Anne Brochet), and her workaholic, public official father who is worried about his job. The lives of these grownups are meaningless to Paloma, until Renee and Kakura come in to her life. The measured arc of the story keeps a nice, even pace that makes the time fly by. I give it an A-.

Paloma Josse (Garance Le Guillermic) is disturbed by her privileged life in Paris where her father Paul (Wladimir Yordanoff, "L'Auberge Espagnole") frets about his government job while her mother Solange (Anne Brochet, "Intimate Strangers") guzzles champagne and anti-depressants.  She decides she will kill herself in 165 days on her 12th birthday and begins to document life in her apartment building with her father's old videocamera.  When a new neighbor, Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa, "Memoirs of a Geisha," "A Matter of Size") moves in, though,  Paloma notes his interest in their concierge, Renée (Josiane Balasko, "French Twist," "The Libertine") and finds her own curiosity piqued by the "The Hedgehog."

Mona Achache makes a strong feature directorial debut adapting Muriel Barbery's novel "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" with an unforgettable performance from Josiane Balasko as the titular metaphor. The film is actually two in one - Paloma provides the framing with ample doses of societal criticism, and while the suicide hook is insufficiently fleshed out, young Le Guillermic makes for an entertaining observor and narrator and Achache uses Paloma's artistic talents to provide visual flourishes throughout. But it's the tentative love story between Kakuro and Renee which gives the film its soul.

The death of an upstairs neighbor, which sets the small building abuzz, also opens the door for the dignified Kakuro's entry.  He shakes Renee by parrying her comment that 'happy families are all alike,' with 'but each unhappy family is unique,' the completion of an "Anna Karinina" quote.  Renee may be a frumpy, heavyset middle-aged woman, but Kakuro sees something else and quietly tries to coax her out.  This encourages Paloma to do the same and she discovers a world of books and wry observations within Renee's walls.  Renee goes through a small transformation, getting her hair cut and wearing a dress building maid Manuela (Ariane Ascaride, "A Common Thread") borrows from an estate, then learns about minimalist Japanese design and cooking in Kakuro's redesigned apartment.  She remembers an Ozu film, "The Munekata Sisters," and is invited to bring her video to tea (no relation Kakuro tells her).  But there are bumps - the borrowed dress is stained and when Kakuro invites her to dine out for his birthday, she panics, convinced she is setting herself up for heartbreak in such an unbalanced relationship.

Achache shakes up her visuals through Paloma's artistic bent, doing such things as putting older sister Colombe (Sarah Le Picard) in a 'fishbowl' by filming her through a glass of water, creating an evolving graphic design representing events on the daily blocks of the countdown calendar Paloma's gridded out on her bedroom wall and animating the 3D drawings she creates.  There is also a clever use of pets - each of the three major households has cats that reflects their family - while Colombe's goldfish Hubert has an ironic journey.  The film's major drawback is its use of Renee's blossoming as a rebuttal to Paloma's gimmicky opening salvo, a lesson learned in a subject too adult for its student, no matter how adult and perceptive Paloma is.  And is she ever, telling her father that 'only religion rivals psychoanalysis for suffering' and making him start when she notes her mother's cycle of self-medication.  The support in the Josse family is solid, creating a combined din which Paloma would wish to escape.  Igawa is understated and gentle.  But Balasko is a revelation, giving a truly sensual performance from within her dowdy exterior.

"The Hedgehog" may lean a little too heavily on irony, but Achache makes the most of her material and her cast.

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