It's hard to dislike The Hedgehog. It is saccharine yet melancholic, warm yet tragic. It may be a small independent work by first-time feature director Mona Achache that asks no more of your attention for 100 minutes, but it is an effort filled with heart, grace, and tears.
Based on the popular novel 'The Elegance of the Hedgehog' by Muriel Barbery, The Hedgehog is as much a journey of discovery by a precocious young girl as it is a tale of an unlikely romance between an unsociable French janitor and a refined Japanese man.
Set in an upscale Parisian apartment, the film is told through the eyes of Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic), the young girl who not only is an astute observer of social interactions, but also has a knack for philosophical musings. However, she does not feel loved, and has decided to end her life on her 12th birthday...
Until her discovery of Renee (Josiane Balasko), the reserved building janitor and her secrets, keeps her curious enough to temporarily forgo that grim thought. The Hedgehog is a simple tale of discovery, an effortless weaving of the stories of the three 'main' characters into a single narrative.
Achache directs the drama with restraint, yet the performances that are produced remain earnest and heartfelt. The best performance goes to Balasko, whose character may look like the last person you would want to strike up a conversation with, yet she wins over our hearts with her cultured passion for literature, especially Tolstoy, and for cinema.
In one sequence, Renee brings over the video tape of Yasujiro Ozu's The Munekata Sisters (1950), and watches it together with Kakuro (Togo Igawa), the aforementioned Japanese man in his apartment.
Achache, who also wrote the screenplay, explores cross-cultural connections as one of the key themes in her film. Other issues such as class consciousness, death, and romance are also dealt with, often through the eyes of Paloma, who realizes that fate is not to be resigned to. After all, and as Sarah Connor from James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) would attest, there is no fate but what we make for ourselves.
Although the film doesn't pick up any pace from start to end, it slowly coaxes you to make an emotional investment in the characters, and rewards you with a powerful ending that will wet your eyes.
The Hedgehog also features an outstanding score by Gabriel Yared (The English Patient, 1996; The Talented Mr. Ripley, 1999) that echoes some of the best work of composer Thomas Newman (American Beauty, 1999; Road to Perdition, 2002).
The Hedgehog is a decent offering that will renew your interest in the whimsical cinema of the French. For those who have not seen a French film not starring Audrey Tatou or Juliette Binoche before in their lives, this would be a good start.