FRENCH director Mona Achache would have you know, one of the swankiest buildings in Paris houses the lonely: a middle-aged concierge with cankles, a precocious 11-year-old girl who has decided to kill herself before she turned 12, and a courtly Japanese widower. And with these dissimilar characters and their unremarkable appearances, Achache intimates there is so much more than meets the eye. The Hedgehog leads us through the inner workings of bourgeois Paris through the eyes of inquisitive, comically suicidal pre-teen Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic). Neglected by her mother and father, Paloma is a type of wonder kid who has had enough of her upper class family and the cloistered world she knows – a world of constant busyness, hypocrisies and superficial obsessions. As indignant young wonder kids do, Paloma is making a film to document why life is utterly absurd and meaningless. What use of a life which results only in endless striving to secure a spot among the elite, like a goldfish trapped in a bowl? Achache’s debut treats us to much perfectly timed comedy mingled with pathos. When Paloma isn’t going about her Attenborough-like video recording, complete with acerbic commentary, we watch the bespectacled, curly-topped girl filch her mother’s sleeping pills, grinding them into a grim powder in preparation for her demise.
The “hedgehog” of the tale, is however, live-in concierge Renée Michel (Josiane Balasko). Renée hides behind her worn mop and dumpy look, her slow-footedness concealing the graceful mental gymnastics of her musings. Behind closed doors, Renée is a self-taught reader with a refined and genuine appreciation for literature, history, philosophy and painting. Renée withdraws from the world of her vacuous neighbours, fearing that to reveal her true self would result in ridicule, because she is unbeautiful and considers herself of a lower class. As Paloma’s planned suicide draws near, Mr Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa), an enigmatic Japanese widower, moves into the apartment block. Through a series of incidences, the three lonely figures are coaxed from their seclusion and a friendship most unlikely is struck up between them.
But as the friendships deepen and open up a life much richer than any of them have known, fate intervenes to deal a devastating blow. Based on the acclaimed French novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog (L‘élégance du hérisson) by Muriel Barbery, the strength of the film adaptation lies in the chemistry of the performances and the hilarity of seeing the world through Paloma’s lenses. Le Guillermic portrays a type of petulant cynicism that really shows her to be very idealistic and very youthful. The Hedgehog is a charming tale of hope and self-discovery, of how we are always thinking, always feeling, and perhaps, ever so often, missing the beauty of the ordinary. The Hedgehog is showing in cinemas now.