The Hedgehog, written and directed by Mona Achache and adapted from the novel by Muriel Barbary, begins with a stern and precocious 11 year old named Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic) explaining to her video camera that her sedate bourgeois life is roughly the equivalent of living inside a fishbowl. She declares that in order to escape such a horrible predicament, she will kill herself on her next birthday. A little grim perhaps, but somewhat typical for French quirkiness. Though a somewhat amusing hook, I was already dreading what this movie was going to become; a tired, contrived, all-too-pretentious, philosophical musing on the emptiness of upper class life. Luckily, to my great delight, I was very wrong.
The Hedgehog is instead a subdued and engaging character story that works its charm and drama with great subtlety and sophistication. Set almost entirely in the upper-class apartment building where Paloma lives, the film begins with the lurking Paloma trailing people about and filming them, commenting with biting insight on their flawed lives. We are also introduced to Renee Michel (Josiane Balasko), the building’s resident janitor who lives and works largely ignored by the apartment’s tenants. Renee, who is deeply private and surly, fits the “hedgehog” motif to a tee, though of course, we soon find there is more to her than her caustic exterior suggests. The film – and the characters of Paloma and Renee – really comes to life when an elderly Japanese man, Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa), moves into the apartment. Kakuro is such a breath of fresh air, at once both gentlemanly and boyish, whose warmth and genuine interest in those around him soon begin to profoundly affect both Renee and Paloma.
What follows is not so much a narrative as a touching and subtle exploration of character and companionship as Paloma, Renee and Kakuro find richness and value in one another. The acting is engaging and clever, preferring an understated realism that evokes a deep and more compelling connection with the audience. The film is never heavy handed or melodramatic, and wisely allows the humour and drama on display to flow naturally and steadily. The music by Gabriel Yared supports this restrained style, with simple piano motifs that don’t overpower what’s happening on the screen. The Hedgehog, like the animal theme its title represents, is a strange but ultimately beautiful creature that has great elegance and feeling once it reveals itself.