Loosely based on L’élégance du hérisson, the best-selling novel by French philosophy professor Muriel Barbery, writer-directr Mona Achache’s first feature, Le hérisson is a charming and affecting story about what we may find if we scratch beneath the surface of our most familiar surroundings.
The tale centers on two residents of a luxury apartment building at 7 Rue de Grenelle in the Left Bank of Paris. Paloma Josse (Garance Le Guillermic) is a bright, artistic girl with an unruly, dirty blonde mop living in a rich home with — and recording on an old video camera — a family she considers snobs; her mother (Anne Brochet) is a neurotic who collapses into tears at the slightest provocation even after a decade in therapy; her father (Wladimir Yordanoff) is a brilliant yet distant politician; her sister (Sarah Le Picard) is a striving social climber who seeks to win at life by being less nutty than her mother and smarter than her father while making all the right impressions. Paloma sees nothing in her own future but more of the same, destined to wind up as a fish in a bowl. She resolves with all of her collected wisdom to commit suicide on the sixteenth of June, the end of the school year, and the day she turns the ripe old age of twelve.
Renée Michel (Josiane Balasko) is another story entirely. She works as the building’s superintendent, and she goes out of her way to play the part. Old, overweight, and ugly with an unkempt greying rat’s-nest, she is short-tempered and grumpy, just as the bourgeois residents would expect of someone in her position, if they notice her at all. But the windowless back room of her apartment is lined with full bookshelves, with more tomes stacked around her chair. She is, in fact, very well-read and intellectual, though she hides it out of the — perfectly reasonable — fear that she would be cast out if she did not meet people’s expectations.
Things are thrown into disarray by the arrival of a new tenant, Mr. Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa), a Japanese widower who happens to be highly cultured himself. Not only does he befriend Paloma, but he catches Renée quoting Anna Karenina. He is charmed, and he agrees with Paloma that Renée is like a hedgehog — harsh and spiky on the outside in order to push everyone away, while on the inside she is secretly possessed of the same simple refinement as that “terribly elegant” creature.
Achache obviously had to do a lot of work to adapt Barbery’s novel to the screen, and yet I think she managed to get the core across effectively. She even leaves in many of the veiled literary or cinematic references, from Paloma’s birthday to Renée’s climax, which add a textual depth similar to the original. She pulls some wonderful performances out of both Balasko and Le Guillermic. Le Guillermic, in particular, is adept at portraying a young, intelligent girl who has reached the point of “life is meaningless” but has gotten stuck before reaching the point of “so what now?”
Because, of course, life is absurd. But that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. Even hedgehogs can find a reason to uncurl.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.