Mona Achache’s adaptation of The Hedgehog is a touching, tragic tale of unlikely friendships and a contemporary take on the malaise of the Parisian bourgeoisie.
Beneath the Surface by Laura Bennett
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Adapted from the best-selling novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, this film marks young French director, Mona Achache’s feature length debut. The narrative focuses on the precocious and articulate 11-year old Paloma and her rich yet dysfunctional family. Maman is an ethereal beauty, celebrating 10 years of psychoanalysis with anyone who’ll listen, and surviving on a cocktail of anti-depressants and champagne (this is Paris after all!) Papa is a workaholic politician, seemingly without much real concern for his nearest and dearest. Paloma’s older sister, the equally dove-like Colombe, is also swimming around in what her younger sibling has come to refer to as the never-ending goldfish bowl, and is absorbed in her own life, barely tolerant of her sister’s eccentricities. In spite of the elegant surroundings this lifestyle provides for her, Paloma is repulsed by what she sees as her inescapable destiny of becoming like her parents, and is planning to kill herself at the age of 12 by dramatically overdosing on her mother’s pills.
In the meantime she is using her father’s old video camera to make a film (a journal in the original book) about the absurdity of life, observing the day to day goings-on of her family members. Paloma sums up the emotional void she sees around her in the fact that her family’s cats are named Constitution and Parliament. She feels detached from the bustle around her; when she is not being ignored she is being told off for interrupting, or for hiding in corners and filming. Excelling in her Japanese classes at school, Paloma’s frustrating and mostly-introspective existence is set off-course by the arrival of a new Japanese neighbour moving into an elegant and spacious upstairs apartment, recently available due to the sudden death of its previous owner. They speak Japanese together in the lift and the elegant Kakuro lets Paloma in on his interest in the building’s mysterious concierge, the enigmatic Mme Michel. Kakuro has deduced that Mme Michel has an interest in classic Russian literature that belies her humble profession, while Paloma hints that she thinks she is concealing a secret, likening her to a prickly hedgehog with a private, elegant interior.
Mme Michel, played by the ever versatile and enigmatic Josiane Balasko, is the pivot around which the story revolves. She hides herself away behind a carefully constructed façade of a stereotype of a building concierge. She is grey and joyless, spending all her time with her cat; she talks only when necessary and is at best considered anti-social by her tenants, at worst invisible. In contrast to their hectic lives, Mme Michel’s world is one of regularity and stillness. It is the new oriental arrival who brings Renée Michel out of her spiky shell with his exotic otherness; breaking down her reluctance to form relationships and burrowing beneath her hard exterior to find a surprisingly passionate admirer of foreign literature and film underneath. As Paloma looks on intrigued, Kakuro and Renée’s friendship blossoms, verging on a burgeoning romance.
As Paloma begins to see that perhaps life is not always so predictable, she starts to question her otherwise cast-iron suicide plan. Her own friendships with Kakuro and Renée also begin to grow, colouring her previously monochrome existence – could it be that there is something to live for in her superficial world after all? As events take a tragic turn and Renée is killed suddenly in an appalling accident, Paloma begins to see the real suddenness and heartbreaking nature of death, calling her plan into question once again.
A sophisticated, well-acted and cohesive film, Achache succeeds in bringing this complex story to life. Elegantly Parisian, each element chimes harmoniously with the whole, from the Art Nouveau architecture of the immeuble to Paloma’s intellectually precocious understanding of the world around her. A film about outsiders, the director confesses to having been attracted to the novel by the “unconventional characters, their originality, the unlikelihood of their meeting and the poetry emanating from the story”. The Hedgehog is a modern fairy tale with recognisable elements of realism. Its dreamlike aspect lending it an undeniable charme.
The Hedgehog is released in the UK on 2nd September 2011