Sometimes a person has to be coaxed out of hiding before you can see them for who they are. The Hedgehog (based on a bestseller called The Elegance of the Hedgehog) features two such characters, one a spoiled child and the other an invisible service worker.
Poor Little Rich Girl
The first person we meet in The Hedgehog is Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic), an awful 11-year-old girl who tells her high-end video camera that although her family is wealthy and privileged, she believes her life as an adult will be hollow — she’ll be living in a fishbowl, bonking the glass, going nowhere — so she plans to kill herself when she turns 12.
As if to illustrate just how well off she is, the film cuts immediately to the concierge (in this country we might call her a super — a building superintendent) who lives below, in her 50s, taking out the garbage, greeting a mentally ill friend who lives on the street nearby.
The girl’s parents and older sister come across as self-absorbed and fashionably shallow, and we quickly come to despise all of them.
Paloma thinks the concierge is prickly on the outside but possibly patient and elegant on the inside.
In cross-cuts we begin to get to know “The Hedgehog” — that mysterious woman who is the concierge. Her name is Renée (Josiane Balasko) and she has a vast library of literature, but she keeps it hidden behind a closed door. Her philosophy is to let people see what they want to see. If that means making it easy for people to ignore her or dismiss her, so be it. That’s not to say it doesn’t hurt when, for example, her husband dies and nobody in the building notices.
One man is able to breach the defenses of both of these women. Mr. Ozu (no relation to the famous director), a fiftyish Japanese Frenchman with a shock of bristly white hair, moves in to the building. On meeting Renée, he recognizes her offhand remark as a quote from Anna Karenina. That makes him more interested in getting to know her than any of his other neighbors.
We already learned that precocious Paloma knows something about Asian cultures when she corrected her parents’ guest on the origin and meaning of the game Go. So when she meets Mr. Ozu in the elevator and impresses him with a phrase or two of Japanese, she too becomes an object of his interest.
As they each open up to Mr. Ozu, we get to know them both a little better. The spoiled ennui of Paloma starts to look more like creativity without a good outlet. And the stereotypical façade of the concierge-as-janitor slowly drops away — at least for Mr. Ozu.
Page to Screen
I am told the movie is a faithful adaptation of the book, and it feels like it. The Hedgehog has the slow, steady pace and ever-increasing depth of a delicious novel. There is an ending that feels contrived, and yet it too feels like the contrivance of an author and not of a screenwriter. The reader I saw the movie with liked the movie as well as the book.
The three leads give very good performances, particularly Guillermic as Paloma, who takes center stage. She’s a natural in front of the camera, at ease with the intimacy of her scenes — often filmed in close or medium shots. Togo Igawa as Mr. Ozu is formal and proper, while Balasko is unapologetic about being in her fifties and heavyset, yet still being a woman and a person worth knowing.
The film takes place almost entirely in the building where the characters all live. The movie can feel a little closed-in and cut off. But Paloma and Renée are emotionally closed-in, so the single setting works in its favor. Maybe that’s why it takes someone from the outside to open them up.
I’m guessing the book would offer a deeper view into the characters, but the film is a solid, well-made character study about mistaken first impressions.