This is a movie shot from two perspectives. First, there is Paloma (beguilingly played by Garance Le Guillermic), an eccentric and precociously intelligent 11-year-old girl born into wealth and privilege she wants no part of. She spends her time in the apartment in which she lives with her parents and older sister, filming them through an old movie camera, gathering evidence of her perception of their lives as soulless and superficial.
This harsh assessment is a projection of her own sense that life is banal and meaningless – common enough in emerging adolescents straining against parental authority and hormonal onslaught, but Paloma isn’t sentiment-driven. Not for her the angst of the common herd! She’s in dispassionately intellectual existential crisis (how French!). And she has decided, calmly and rationally (she thinks), that life is so dull and pointless she will end hers on her 12th birthday, thus avoiding the tiresome path that birth and circumstance have mapped out for her!
Then there is the concierge of the apartment block, Renée (Josiane Balasko). She is a dowdy, cranky, middle-aged woman who carefully conforms to her occupational stereotype so as not to be noticed. In the privacy of her apartment, she retreats into her solitary but culturally enriched shell, surrounding herself with bookshelves full of works of literature and indulging in fine chocolate.
A wealthy, urbane, retired Japanese widower, Kauro Ozu (Togo Igawa), who lives in an upper floor apartment, sees through Renée’s disguise to the person beneath. He gently but persistently seeks to develop a relationship with her, and slowly she begins to open up and rediscover her femininity.
Paloma, too, penetrates Renee’s camouflage and thereby finds she has something in common with her and Kauro: they are three sensitive, marginal characters united by shared sensibilities.
Renee’s relationship with Kauro begins to move towards intimacy. She is ‘a woman ready to love’, and her new, courageous openness has a transformational effect on Paloma, who begins to understand that life is far more complex and less predictable than she had imagined. That understanding is forcefully underscored by a tragic turn of events.
This is a gentle, superbly written and beautifully crafted debut feature film from screenwriter/director Mona Achache, adapted from Muriel Barbery’s novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Achache has infused her movie with a warming humanity, steering adroitly clear of didactic, classist commentary: Paloma maligns her family for their bourgeois lifestyles, but they are sympathetically presented as tolerant, left-leaning folk who are likeable enough, despite her scornful behind-camera denunciations.
The acting performances are inspired, Josiane Balasko’s in particular. Her portrayal of her Cinderella character’s delicate blooming as a middle-aged woman who dares to accept the risks and dangers of love is enthralling – emotionally momentous, in fact.
A low-budget modern fairy tale mercifully free of the saccharine elements and formulaic confines Hollywood has conditioned us to expect, The Hedgehog (Le Hérisson) is an intriguing mix: quirky, endearing, humourous, tragic – and ultimately, life-affirming.
I’m not generally a fan of French cinema, but this is exquisite. Go.
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