The Hedgehog (Le hérisson)

Ze Frenchies, zey are everywhere this year!

Well, what can I say? If you can’t find a decent movie in English, you have to turn somewhere. Last year, it was Sweden. This year, France.

The Hedgehog is a neat little French film about a building full of rich people that is managed by a grumpy, frumpy concierge. Well, really, it’s about the 11-year-old daughter of one of the rich families, and her countdown to killing herself on her twelfth birthday.

I know, French, right?

It’s dark, obviously, but—how to put this?—childishly so. I don’t mean that as an insult: Paloma is a child, maybe a future “goth” or “emo” or whatever, but her grasp of the significance of things is distinctly childish. The upshot is that you have this dichotomy of knowing that she’s perfectly capable of killing herself and intent on doing it, and at the same time being amused by her thought processes. Bemusement, to use the word correctly.

The story begins with her making this decision, but the catalyst for the subsequent adventures begin with the death of one of the tenants in her building, and the appearance of a new tenant, Kakuro Ozu. This elderly Japanese fellow clearly likes Paloma, but more importantly to the story, he has an eye for the apartment’s concierge.

It’s helpful to realize that, apparently, the concierge of a wealthy building is rather low on the totem pole. At one point she exclaims that she’s the janitor (or so the translation has it). Point is, she’s way down on the social scale, expected to be a coarse woman who watches soaps all day long and to be generally unnoticed by the upper crust clientele.

Our movie concierge is a frowsy, frumpy, crotchety old woman, immediately off-putting to all who meet her, except for one little thing. When Kakuro asks about the family that lived there before and the agent (that’s probably not who she is, but that’s who would do that here) says they were a happy family, Renée (the concierge) says “Happy families are all alike.”

To which Kakuro, naturally adds, “Every unhappy family is unhappy in it’s own way.”

OK, I’m not going to pretend I’ve read Anna Karenina, but I recognized the quote. If they’d quoted from Crime and Punishment, I’d’ve been all over that.

And so the movie is basically about how the two of them form an unlikely bond through a love of Russian literature. Also, how Paloma’s ennui is lifted, sort of, by watching this. (She actually curses her luck of finally having something interesting happen just as she’s about to end it all.)

The three principals are incredibly appealing which contributes greatly to this movie’s watchability. The characters are strongly written and the acting has a certain je ne sais qua. (That’s French for “I’m too lazy to come up with a better joke”.) Togo Igawa projects a quiet dignity as the charming widower, and Garance Le Guillermic does the angsty pre-teen with a subtle depth that makes her likable throughout.

I mean, that’s a real potential landmine: Though she’s young, Paloma is much in the mold of the rebellious teenager, and lord knows they can be insufferable to watch—even when you’re one yourself. My father thought The Breakfast Clubbers were a little whiny. I couldn’t figure out why James Dean was pissed off all the time. It’s not that they don’t make good observations, it’s that the observations tend to be incomplete or shallow, which makes the subsequent arrogance (to repeat myself) insufferable.

Paloma is still a child, and her mother has spent her whole life indulging her neuroses. Her older sister is monstrously self-important and self-involved. Dad is feeble and placating without being engaged. The audience’s heart goes out to her, naturally, but they manage to keep empathy even when Paloma seems a little cruel.

Which happens.

Josiane Balasko, as the concierge (and the titular hedgehog), is the key to making it all work. She really makes herself unattractive. Not in that Hollywood, slap-a-pair-of-glasses-onto-Kathy-Ireland way, either. And it’s not just skin deep: There’s an unhappiness, a little bitterness, prickliness to it all.

Her transformation is amazing. Not her physical transformation. She does get a makeover, and it helps, but it’s very understated. But when you first catch a glimpse of happiness, or warmth, or even joy on her face, it’s a moving experience.

Balasko has been playing homely middle-aged women for 20 years at least, since she played Gerard Depardiu’s lover in Too Beautiful For You. But some time before that, I’m pretty sure she was a French hottie, romantic-lead-with-occasional-nude-scene type.

I mention this for a couple of reasons. One, I often wax poetic on these pages about the way the French let their women age, and how I think it’s far more attractive than the botoxed/tightened/implanted look of the American never-get-old style. This is a weird case of that, in that Balasko isn’t an Isabelle Huppert or an Isabelle Adjani (who are peers), yet there is a respect afforded her that I can almost not imagine in an American film.

The other thing is that I can’t imagine—can’t think of a single American hottie in a similar career path: Used to be hot, now plays homely. Mostly they’ll do anything to stave off aging. Like, say, Morgan Fairchild or Victoria Principal. I could see Nancy Allen maybe doing it, except she’s aged more gracefully than either of the aforementioned.

Maybe a propos of nothing. It’s a remarkable performance on its own, but seems amazing given the context.

Anyway, The Boy was once again able to overcome his loathing of all things French to enjoy this film. His main comment was something like “it got French at the end, but it didn’t go full French”. And this is true.

Worth seeing.

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