An elegant twist in offbeat lives
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Sep 02, 2011
"The Hedgehog" is a treat: a movie that's smart, grown-up, wry and deeply moving. Best of all, this is accomplished with the lightest of cinematic strokes. It sneaks up on you, without grandstanding, melodrama or outright jokes.
Based on French author Muriel Barbery's bestselling 2006 novel, "The Elegance of the Hedgehog," the story is much like the hedgehog itself, or at least like the way one of those curious creatures is described in the film: "falsely lethargic, staunchly private and terribly elegant."
Like that animal, the feature debut of writer-director Mona Achache is, superficially, a slow-moving thing. Unhurried without being sluggish, the action is deliberate, centering on incremental changes in the relationships among three residents of a luxury apartment building in Paris: precocious 11-year-old Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic); frumpy 54-year-old concierge Rene (Josiane Balasko); and Mr. Ozu (Togo Izawa), an elegant, 60-ish Japanese businessman who has just moved in. The film, like the book, has two protagonists: Paloma, an artistically inclined soul who is making a documentary about her upper-middle-class family, and Rene, who observes all, with a jaundiced eye, from her small rooms just off the building's lobby.
Each has a sour outlook on life.
Paloma is disgusted with the hypocrisies of bourgeois life and has resolved to kill herself, with an overdose of her mother's anti-anxiety pills, by her 12th birthday. (Or so she claims. You'll scarcely believe it, since she talks, at one point, about what she wants to be when she grows up.) "The Hedgehog" switches between her point of view - seen, as often as not, through the lens of her camera - and that of Rene, a lonely, working-class widow whose gruff exterior hides a sensitive, self-taught aesthete, secretly in love with literature, art, music and film. Rene is the hedgehog of the title, prickly on the outside, refined on the inside. But Paloma has a bit of a tough hide, too.
Their friendships with Mr. Ozu - a taciturn gentleman-philosopher who sees through each of their facades - are transformative. The filmmaker doesn't reveal those changes through dialogue or action as much as she does through glances and facial expressions. Achache's camera seems to illuminate hidden feelings, magically, that even Paloma and Rene aren't aware of.
"The Hedgehog" is about a lot of things: class consciousness, culture and the power of art. But mostly it's about the discovery that change is always possible and that it's never too late to embrace love, or life.
Through their encounters with each other and with Mr. Ozu - encounters that are filled with a quiet, almost wordless grace - Rene's and Paloma's defenses are chipped away at, in ways both subtle and powerful.
If you let it, this little movie might make a similar chink in your armor.
Contains thematic material related to death and dying. In French with subtitles.