Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Hedgehog

Like its title character, the prickly concierge of a high-end Paris apartment building, The Hedgehog is hard to warm up to at first. The film, which is adapted from Muriel Barbery's global bestseller The Elegance of the Hedgehog, ends badly too, sputtering to a halt after a gimmicky climax reduces the concierge to the Gallic version of a Magical Negro, her compelling story a mere life lesson for the precocious 11-year-old tenant she's befriended. But every time your attention starts to break free, the film's stellar cast reels it back, their acting waging a heroic battle against a clunky script.

Garance Le Guillermic is nicely acerbic as Paloma, the 11-year-old prodigy who announces in the movie's opening scene that she plans to kills herself on her 12th birthday to avoid following in the footsteps of her hopelessly bourgeois family. That setup feels contrived, and Paloma's supposedly offhand remarks are sometimes painfully overwritten (she says the concierge is "prickly on the outside, a real fortress, but I feel that inside she's as refined as that falsely lethargic, staunchly private and terribly elegant creature") or on-the-nose (the thumbnail character descriptions she whispers of her narcissistic sister, oblivious mother, and workaholic father while filming them for her documentary on the emptiness of their lives don't tell us much we haven't already gathered). But Le Guillermic earns our sympathy anyhow by playing straight down the line. Free of pandering self-pity or cuteness, she shows us the loneliness of a child prodigy who is nagged when she tries to retreat into herself and scolded or gawped at when she speaks her mind.

Togo Igawa uses warm eyes, ramrod posture, and a politely tentative way of speaking to infuse Kakuro Ozu, an elegant Japanese widower who homes in on Paloma and the concierge soon as he moves into the building, with a compelling mixture of directness and reserve. But the real standout is Josiane Balaska as the concierge—or, as the subtitles put it, the janitor, as if the class divide between her and her new friends needs to be widened any further. Balaska's Reneé Michel starts out reclusive, grim, and convinced that happiness is too much to hope for. She winds up basking in the companionship and appreciation she has gone so long without, and watching Balaska slowly relax her guard is a real pleasure. (Her first laugh, which takes place in Kakuro's bathroom, is as transformative as Garbo's in Ninotchka.)

Yes, cats and Russian novels are clumsily fetishized, and recurring themes like the goldfish in a too-small container and the mother too busy talking to her plants to see her own daughter are un peu exagéré, non? But then we get something like the lovely embrace between Paloma and a grieving Reneé and all is forgiven, as Reneé's complicated reaction to the arms the little girl fastens stubbornly around her puts the facile hugs littering Hollywood movies these days to shame.

Written for The L Magazine

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