Originally Reviewed – 9/20/2011
A curmudgeonly old super sitting in a secret back room library. A brilliant young girl holding a hand held camera. A kindly old sophisticate. A pair of hyper medicated, under appreciating parents. A single image of a swimming goldfish. Adapted from the bestselling book The Elegance of the Hedgehog, this French import is filled with images, some sad, some serene and some purely metaphorical, but chock full nonetheless. Films of this type can sometimes border on high minded melodrama but thanks to an excellent combination of acting, writing and storytelling, The Hedgehog rises above the dour setup of the first act, providing one my biggest surprises so far this year.
The film starts off through the lens of eleven year old Paloma’s handheld camera as she introduces you to the people that color her world: her distant parents, her constantly irritated sister, her quietly swimming goldfish, all constant reminders of the drudgery that growing up has to offer. Intelligent enough to realize that she doesn’t want to become those people yet too young to see how she can escape, she sets in motion a nine month plan to document the world as she sees it and then, on her twelfth birthday, commit suicide, leaving behind her film as a photographic death note.
While this may seem like a heavy handed setup at first glance, The Hedgehog has a darkly comic edge to it, important in balancing out the impending death of a pre-teen. Paloma, played perfectly by Garance LeGuillermic, fills the role with an equal measure of sharp wit, surprising insight and youthful naivety. Smart kids often play too much like adults but LeGuillermic and writer Muriel Barbery avoid that trap by giving the character time to be childish, even when she’s discussing the origins of Go with her sister’s boyfriend or ruminating about the boring life of her bowl bound goldfish. There’s a playful air to Paloma’s melancholy and that pulls us through a film that could have easily been too heavy to handle.
Thirty minutes in, however, the film starts to hit its stride when Paloma meets Renee, the frumpy yet cordial concierge of her family’s apartment building. Played by famed French actress Josiane Balasko, Renee has a prickly exterior, caused by years of personal neglect and private pain, a facade that Paloma sees right through. Balasko is near brilliant in a complex role that requires her to be begrudging of her high class tenants while harboring an inner sweetness that many years of drudgery has kept hidden. While Balasko is great in her interactions with Paloma, her character really blooms when she becomes romantically involved with a new tenant, Kakuro, played expertly by Togo Igawa. Keeping with the tone of the film, their relationship is a quietly simple one: Renee struggles for things to say, stumbles about Kakuro’s meticulous apartment and squirms at his noodle slurping, all watched by the patiently understanding eye of Kakuro. Their relationship is all about careful acceptance and although the moments we see are minutia, each character is defined by their subtleties in very special ways.
In fact, if asked to sum up The Hedgehog in twenty words or less, I’d probably say it’s a darkly sweet story about healing from old wounds, rediscovering love and valuing the quality of life. Backed by fantastic performances, a disarmingly dark storyline and sucker punch ending that, while shocking, makes perfect sense for the message the film’s trying to send, The Hedgehog is yet another excellent offering from the French filmmaking industry. And much like the small goldfish swimming in his bowl, the grouchy old lady sitting amongst her books or the kindly gentleman living life the best he can, The Hedgehog creates a sense of serenity that’s magically dreamlike, even when rooted in the realities of the world. A wonderful film indeed.
Score – 90%