Based on Muriel Barbery's bestseller The Elegance of the Hedgehog, this French charmer watches 11-year-old Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic) suffer her family's wealth and her own precocity in a handsome, Parisian apartment. When a neighbor in her building dies, the residents call it a tragedy—by comparison, when concierge (subtitled as "janitor") Mrs. Michel (Josiane Balasko) lost her husband, no one noticed at all. The class war is quiet and one sided in The Hedgehog, a film interested in culture's riches and life's paradoxes (the title refers to Mrs. Michel, whose exterior deters others but who, inside, is quite elegant). The film faces a poetically comparable challenge in US markets, where its theatrical reach could meet and please many audiences, but will likely deter the casual theatergoer with its subtitles. Marketing to families and teens seems wise, because no matter how flamboyantly arthouse this Hedgehog may be, it's a kid's film in many ways.
Paloma is a breed popular in films for the erudite cinemagoer; her maturity and observations outwit her years. It's adorable to outsiders and frightening to her mother (Anne Brochet), who's celebrating a decade of therapy as Poloma hides and spies. Determined to die doing something important, she's documenting what she calls adult hypocrisy and stockpiling her mother's antidepressants with the intention to overdose on her 12th birthday. Paloma knows nothing of sadness, so her scheduled fatality is a sort of game, a secret she can have since secrets have currency to her. Like a tiny Jean Rouch, she observes from the passageways of her building, capturing the daily ins-and-outs of her elders, until the concierge's cat Leo (named for Tolsoy) nearly escapes and she's forced to pause her ironic bouts of tragedy to return the cat to Mrs. Michel's apartment. There she finds the concierge's carefully hidden pleasures: dark chocolate and a library of utilitarian paperbacks stacked with affection. As Paloma's only loving collection was stolen from her mother's medicine chest, the form of secret collecting seems like a quiet code between the two, even if it's a code unspoken. Mr. Ozu (Togo Igawa) moves into the apartment vacated by the death on floor three, and an instant kinship grows between the worldly Japanese retiree and the reluctant Mrs. Michel, kindred spirits bound by a love for Tolstoy the surrounding ruling class seems not to recognize. Paloma doesn't understand why the possibility of love between the janitor and the powerful Japanese neighbor causes Mrs. Michel stress—what can she know of class struggle? What Paloma can see is that Mrs. Michel has found "the perfect hiding space," and that no one would even suspect that Renée Michel, with her thorny demeanor, had such a presumably resplendent interior life. (I say "presumably" because readers don't "read well" onscreen. Mrs. Michel likes books. Greater personal intrigue is left strictly to the viewers' imaginations.)
If their national cinema is any indication, the French consider pleasure a virtue. In this case, the pleasure is Culture, an institution to which The Hedgehog aspires. But a film about a precocious tween is a hard sell as an incisive cultural contribution—in fact, the film often feels like a gateway drug to prestige pics (learning to tolerate the nagging cello score might just prime you for early Merchant Ivory). But the fact it traffics in these broad assessments of value is precisely why it has a hard time being such. The Hedgehog is more like Eat. Pray. Love. than Far From the Madding Crowd...or even Tamara Drewe. It may be churlish to point out the film's hopes and dreams when its marketing campaign could swoop in and contextualize it a product to indoctrinate kids into the ways of foreign cinema but, it's probably more like The Art of Getting By, another film that sells the catharsis of kids with major vocabularies explaining the confusions we too suffered, but in a way we couldn't have at the time. If that works for you, so will The Hedgehog, which, contrary to all of my bitter nudging, I found both sweet and charming. It's just me: I hate precocious children.
Cast: Garance Le Guillermic, Anne Brochet, Togo Igawa, Josiane Balasko
Director/Screenwriter: Mona Achache
Producer: Anne-Dominique Toussaint
Genre: Comedy; French- and Japanese-languages, subtitled
Running time: 98 min.
Release date: August 19 NY, August 26 ltd.