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  Hedgehog, The Prickly on the outside
Year: 2009
Director: Mona Achache
Stars: Josiane Balasko, Garance Le Guillermic, Togo Igawa, Anne Brochet, Ariane Ascaride, Wladimir Yordanoff, Sarah Lepicard, Jean-Luc Porraz, Gisèle Casadesus, Mona Heftre
Genre: Comedy, DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 1 vote)
Review: Paloma Josse (Garance Le Guillermic) is eleven years old, precociously intelligent and articulate, fascinated with art and philosophy, obsessed with documenting her observations via her video diary. And hopelessly depressed by the futility of life. So Paloma decides that on her twelfth birthday, she will kill herself. Fed up with her neurotic, self-involved family, Paloma discovers an unexpected kindred spirit in her building’s frumpy, grumpy janitor, Renée Michel (Josiane Balasko), who hides her cultured intelligence and sensitivity beneath a prickly facade. To her own surprise, Madame Michel finds an admirer in the recently arrived, serene and elegant Japanese tenant, Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa). Observing their tentative romance alters Paloma’s outlook on life.

Adapted from “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” the acclaimed novel written by professor of philosophy Muriel Barbery, Le herisson was accused in some quarters of dumbing down some of the more intellectual aspects of the text which was rife with allusions to art, literature, music and film and lauded for its ingenious wordplay. While the film does transform the intellectual journey central to the novel into an emotional one, the change was arguably necessary. Certainly, we go to the cinema to think but also to feel and for the most part the most satisfying films are those that tackle weighty intellectual themes with passion and heart. This approach befits the film’s central thesis which argues empathy is as important as an inquisitive mind.

While Paloma uses the hedgehog as a descriptive metaphor for Madame Michel, the allegory applies to her too given she has more or less curled up into a prickly, defensive, intellectual ball. Looking inward, not outward whilst pondering the big questions has led Paloma to conclude life is absurd and meaningless. She obsessively psychoanalyses everyone from her parents (Anne Brochet and Wladimir Yordanoff), her sister (Araian Ascaride) and, in an amusing scene, her pet goldfish but sees only neuroses, not people. Only by establishing an emotional connection with people who have more life experience and wisdom to share does she take a step towards genuine maturity.

From a description alone, a precocious French child genius drawing trenchant observations on modern life sounds like it is going to be insufferable, but debuting director Mona Achache approaches the characters as faceted human beings, not abstract constructs and smooths over some of the occasionally self-important quirks. Working with cinematographer Patrick Blossier, who also co-wrote the script, Achache uses a number of compelling visual tricks, including animation, to open up an essentially contained, claustrophobic story into something expansive and cinematic. It was Achache who conceived the idea of Paloma keeping a video diary, a conceit not present in the novel and cleverly visualises her abundant monologues. She also leavens the intellectual discussions with moments of wry comedy including one priceless scene involving a musical toilet.

The film stays in first gear throughout, which might be off-putting for some yet it remains a rare work deftly illustrating how deep human feeling can arise from shared intellectual pursuits. Achache pairs an ingratiating performance from remarkably gifted and fast-rising child actress Garance Le Guillermic with a sublime and moving turn from veteran comedienne Josiane Balasko. Equally charming is Japanese actor Togo Igawa who, in many ways, proves the key character exhibiting the most profound understanding of life. The film features an aptly elegant and lovely score by Gabriel Yared.

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam


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