The show is stolen from 11-year-old narrator Garance Le Guillermic in 'The Hedgehog.'

More than Cute Keeps 'Hedgehog' Going

Dennis Harvey September 6, 2011

Mona Achache's first feature relies heavily on an 11-year-old narrator, but it's 60- and 65-year-old actors Balasko and Igawa who steal the show in 'The Hedgehog.'

Taking precociousness to an extreme that might only make sense in the country that invented existentialism, Paloma (Garane le Guillermic) has seen it all—or so she thinks—at the age of 11, and is not impressed.

What does she have to look forward to? If the other members of her upper-class Parisian family can be taken as examples, as Paloma duly takes them, then the answer is "Not enough." An ex-model-looking fount of good intentions, disorder, neurosis and too-easily-triggered emotional distress, mom (Anne Brochet) is the very image of a medicated modern bourgeoise housewife. Teenage sis Colombe (Sarah Lepicard) is a bit of a prima donna, and at that age when everything one's relatives do seems to be a deliberate effort to mortify. Politician dad (Wladimir Yordanoff) is simply too busy to deal with (or even notice) any of this.

Seeing their lives as a map of her own banal, privileged yet unhappy future, Paloma has made a decision with all the internal grandiosity a diary-keeping (well, video-diary-keeping) pubescent can muster: When she turns 12, she will End It All. Goodbye, cruel world. Won't everyone be sorry! Particularly with such an elaborate record of this brilliant child's accusatory discontent for them to dwell upon after the tragic event.

Paloma is our narrator and also the narrative gimmick of The Hedgehog, Mona Achache's first feature. As she observes life—mostly through that nosy camera lens–in her building of luxury apartments, she finds much evidence to bolster her lofty position of profound ennui. But she also discovers a few mysteries, notably in the person of the location's concierge Mother Michel aka Renee (Josiane Balasko), who fits her position's stereotype by being of indeterminate age, grumpy, frumpy, and presumably with no social let alone intellectual life of her own.

Renee is happy enough to let her self-absorbed upper-caste tenants see her that way, the better to be left alone; there's no need for them to know, for instance, that her smaller ground-level flat has a room piled to the ceiling with well-thumbed world literature. But Paloma detects that Renee is more than a sexless old grouch with a cat for companionship. And when a new resident arrives in the person of courtly Japanese widower and fellow Tolstoy quoter Mr. Ozu (Togo Igawa) moves in, that makes two people who suddenly interested in who Renee really is–a person even she herself has forgotten existed.

Adapted from a novel by Muriel Barbery, The Hedgehog (the animal Paloma identifies with Renee for its reclusiveness as well as its sensitivity) suffers most from what's clearly a literary device: Our pre-teen guide's voice, which was probably delightful on the page but seems a rather arch, precious construction as fleshed out on screen. Not that juvenile actress le Guillermic is at fault; it's just that once we get to know Renee, then Mr. Ozu, their slow-burning autumnal romance is so much more interesting that Paloma's point of view soon seems beside the point.

Balasko and Igawa are 60 and 65, respectively, with long histories in their separate national cinemas as well as international projects. It's a pleasure to see them eke so much, so understatedly, from such modest if enjoyable material. Nicely crafted, The Hedgehog seldom aims to be more than a pleasant low-key diversion—at which it succeeds—so it's jolting when the story pulls an abrupt late turn that casts everything in a more serious, ambitious light. Frankly, that leap seems a little more than this slight movie can bear. But its jarring note still leaves intact the close harmony previously created by two veteran performers whose duet here is hardly world-shaking, but nonetheless lingers sweetly afterward.