A 12-year-old Parisian girl named Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic), with Woody Allen glasses and an impassive oval face, is counting the days until she can commit suicide. She plans to do so not out of sadness but out of disdain for mediocrity; it seems to her inevitable as one ages.
All she has to do is look around her: in her opinion, her parents’ flat is a goldfish bowl, a place of boredom and entrapment, meant to be slowly filled with waste.
The Hedgehog is filmed partially from Paloma’s POV. She stalks her family with a camera, whispering like David Attenborough trying not to spook a leopard. Her older sister is named, redundantly, Colombe (chances are a third child would have been called Dove). With some accuracy, Colombe calls her younger sister “an intolerant and depressive little person.”
Paloma films her mother, who tends to croon more to her houseplants than she does to her daughter. And she lurks at dinner parties; harvesting the dullness of eavesdropped anecdotes, such a therapist’s judgment upon on a patient’s dream of losing her teeth: “Madame, a Freudian would call it a dream of death.”
The five-unit building has a concierge, Renee. She’s slightly shapeless, with a quantity of self-trimmed hair; when she sweeps it up it looks as if she’s growing her own beret. She has a wart on the forehead like a third eye. We watch her making tea for herself, resting her tired arms on an oilcloth-covered table. It’s her time out to read some serious fiction.
The hedgehog of the title is played by Josiane Belasko. We get Belasko rationed in pitiful doses in America. One serving a decade or so, it seems. In French Twist, Belasko played the embodiment of lesbian charisma as she seduced Victoria Abril. Years before, in Bertand Blier’s Too Beautiful for You, she was the plain but cuddly mistress whose qualities turned Gerard Depardieu’s head from Carole Bouquet (and note that Bouquet was herself arguably the most beautiful woman ever to play a Bond girl). She has presence, Belasko, and she has even more gravity now that she’s older: a widow running the building, always polite but never chummy.
Anyone with enough French to get themselves into trouble knows that “janitor” (as the subtitles insist) is a too-limited translation of “concierge.” They do more than mop up. They deliver the mail, keep an eye on the place. It’s Renee’s duty to make sure a new tenant (played by Togo Igawa) gets settled. He’s a Japanese gentleman called Ozu (no relation to the director, he explains).
He surprises Renee with a comment about all happy families being alike. Without thinking, Renee gives the Tolstoy countersign: “And all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.” Ozu turns out to be as good as he looks: a gentleman, a scholar and a reader. A demure, hesitant friendship between the characters begins.
The feature debut of director Mona Achache sometimes has as much edge as a brioche, and the soundtrack swamps the tender mood. Still, “elegance” was the word used to describe the correct middle-aged woman in the title of the source novel by Muriel Barbery. Elegant isn’t a bad word for Belasko, stocky and tough as she is.
Achache spices the film with a little cinematic nostalgia (a clip from the real Ozu’s 1953 The Munekata Sisters) and some partial animation (Paloma likes to draw cartoons with a sumi brush) as well as a pinch of magical realism. (Or is it magic? The plumbing in those old buildings can be unpredictable.) The Hedgehog seems particularly recommendable to those bright female teens who, among all demographics, are especially badly served by the movies of today.
Paloma’s own dream of death and her resolution of that dream, is actually not far from the lightly macabre, civilized date movie Harold and Maude—this is like H and M without the shtick. It plays with that idea that every eclectic and sensible young person considers suicide, and most likely outgrows the urge.
Unrated, 100 min.