Film Review: The Hedgehog

Terrific, wise, sweet (with a touch of sour) comedy-drama that brings together three unlikely protagonists who inhabit the same posh Parisian apartment building and share a surprising bond. Smart look and impeccable casting enrich this gem that is also

Based on the international best-seller and adapted to film by a phalanx of females in key positions, The Hedgehog should attract a broad swath of art-house fans—female and male—once critics and word of mouth have their say.

Featuring gifted French star Josiane Balasko, the movie is a showcase of artful cinematic touches entirely in keeping with the narrative proceedings. These include very brief but enchanting animation and film-within-the-film interludes, as the story’s young heroine is artistically blessed and compulsively records her surroundings. The flourishes (some delightful and frightful visual metaphors) are also in keeping with the very special tastes and sensibilities of the three main characters that fate so justifiably brings together.

The Hedgehog first introduces us to Paloma (Garance Le Guilermic), an 11-year-old who is seriously out-of-sync with her stuffy upper-class Parisian family and rebelling appropriately except for her meticulous preparation for suicide when she reaches 12. While the solution to her alienation is extreme, its origins are understandable. She’s also intellectually precocious and unusually sensitive, but no one in the family gives her any attention—including her neurotic, pill-popping mom Solange, who prefers communication with her plants. Solange contends with distracted politician husband Paul (Wladimir Yordanoff), who made the mistake of giving Paloma his old camcorder which she uses, to the family’s displeasure, to capture the absurdities and inanities of the lives around her. Her spot-on voice-overs further clarify her dispiriting observations.

Also infecting this dreary brood is superficial older sister Colombe (Sarah Le Picard), who, on a familiar path, aspires to nothing more than becoming another Solange (barring the severe neuroses).

Paloma does find a friend in Renée (Balasko), the gruff, dour, frumpy concierge who lives in modest quarters on the ground floor of the posh building she efficiently tends to. The girl eventually discovers that beneath Renée’s rough surface lies unexpected elegance (hence, the hedgehog of the title). She’s an avid reader (Tolstoy is a favorite) and devotee of film classics. Ignored by the building’s residents except for the chores they need done, Renée is, like Paloma, an outsider. It’s no surprise that the two bond.

But The Hedgehog has bigger surprises. One emerges with the arrival of new tenant Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa), a wealthy widower of undeniable refinement and grace who, like Paloma, discovers that there’s more to Renée than meets the eye. Happily, Renée’s maid colleague Manuela (Ariane Ascaride) helps coax the concierge out of her funky look and into nicer duds. Paloma, too, makes strides in socializing. As she is conversant in some Japanese and embraces her own brand of inchoate elegance (plus a knowledge of Go), she and Kakuro also bond. The convergence of this unlikely trio (and a goldfish) leads to a joyous but unexpected journey.

While The Hedgehog delivers a strong narrative, plot points run deep. It is a charming, daring, clever attack against class prejudice, social barriers, conformity and materialism. Hypocrisy, too, takes a hit. As the young heroine’s obsession with death and her own planned suicide hovers, The Hedgehog is also a meditation on mortality and comes to terms with the inevitable in a most inspired way.

Tangentially and entertainingly, the film also has satirical fun with the insufferable snobbism that, rightly or wrongly, has stamped the French. (The Brits unburdened themselves of it decades ago.) With The Hedgehog, cold bourgeois life gets some warming and an elegant Asian approach to life gets some heat.