Friday, September 23, 2011

The Hedgehog: Surprises concealed within

The Hedgehog (2009) • View trailer for The Hedgehog
4.5 stars. Rating: suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang

The Hedgehog is a story about the transformational power of kindness.

Director/scripter Mona Achache’s delicate little drama — inspired by Muriel Barbery’s best-selling novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog — is just this side of a small miracle. It’s sweet, poignant, mildly suspenseful, funny and tremendously wise by turns; it’s also one of the most impressive balancing acts I’ve ever seen.
When Kakuro (Togo Igawa) invites Renée (Josiane Balasko) to dinner at his
apartment, she very nearly refuses; why would a cultured gentleman want to
waste time with a concierge? She quickly discovers that some people are kind
by nature, and that all people — even concierges — deserve to be happy.

One false step — one overplayed scene — and the story’s fragile, graceful structure would collapse like a punctured soufflé.

But Achache never errs. She guides this rather unusual coming-of-age saga with the skill of a master chef, coaxing rich, wholly credible performances from her three primary cast members. The result is as sharp, satisfying and bittersweet as the dark chocolate enjoyed by its title character.

The story, set in a French city — could be Paris; doesn’t matter — takes place in a massive building that houses five truly huge luxury apartments. The property is managed by a dumpy, grumpy concierge named Renée (Josiane Balasko), who handles all the scut-work and remains more or less invisible to the tenants who overlook her, much the way 19th century British aristocrats never acknowledged their servants.

Renée plays her role to perfection, and we gradually learn that this is precisely what she’s doing. She looks and acts the part of a dowdy janitor, and does so deliberately. But Renée has secrets, starting with a fondness for reading; she conceals an impressive library behind a closed door in her much smaller downstairs unit.

But although Renée is the title character — the prickly “hedgehog” — she’s not this story’s key protagonist. That would be Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic), a bored 11-year-old who lives in one of the lavish upstairs apartments. Paloma is disgusted by her wealthy, condescending parents, and disenchanted with her own existence; she’s a moody, deeply philosophical and amazingly artistic girl with neither friends nor passion.

And, so, she decides to kill herself.

Paloma narrates her story while making a movie of her whole, useless life; she films family members and fellow apartment dwellers with or without their consent. She also films herself, and thus informs us that when she turns 12 — in 165 days — she’ll end it all. The method will be easy; her manic-depressive mother — a woman more comfortable talking to her plants, than to people — has a ready supply of pills that will deliver a painless suicide.

Paloma views herself as trapped by the patronizing, casually thoughtless existence modeled by her parents, who obviously don’t understand her at all. She compares herself to her older sister’s beloved goldfish, imprisoned within a bowl of water and doomed to remain there forever.

Then ... the dynamic shifts.

An upstairs unit becomes available, when the tenant dies unexpectedly. (Such a fuss everybody makes, yet — we eventually learn — nobody blinked when Renée’s husband died, 15 years earlier.) The new tenant, Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa), a cultured Japanese gentleman, does what nobody ever does: When given a perfunctory introduction to Renée, he stops and really looks at her.

Caught off guard by this courtesy, forced into a few sentences of actual conversation, Renée blurts out a line from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Kakuro responds with the next line.

Nor is he surprised, a bit later, to discover that Renée has named her cat Leo.

Paloma, already fascinated by Kakuro, is even more delighted by this new revelation: There’s more to Renée than meets the eye.

Indeed, the film’s title comes from Paloma’s perceptive and quite profound description of the concierge: “She reminds me of a hedgehog: prickly on the outside, a real fortress ... but inside, as refined as that falsely lethargic, staunchly private and terribly elegant creature.”

Paloma shares this observation with Kakuro, who honors the girl by treating her as an equal, and not a subordinate. This conversation is a precious little scene — one of many superbly choreographed by Achache — that demonstrates young Le Guillermic’s impressive acting chops.

She’s truly excellent: a natural who conveys impressive emotional depth with every word and gesture, even something as simple and ordinary as carefully trying to untangle her glasses from her inevitably out-of-control hair. She conveys wisdom, vulnerability and aching loneliness; the latter makes it inevitable that Paloma will bond with Renée, just as Kakuro does.

Balasko’s performance is equally subtle. I love the way she almost smiles on occasion, as if unwilling to acknowledge even the impulse for momentary delight. Renée is a complicated woman, and Balasko nails all the understated layers of her character’s emotional depths. Like Paloma, Renée is equally lonely; she’s actually the one trapped in a fishbowl, no matter how warm and comforting her apartment, and her books, and her cat (a truly marvelous cat, by the way).

But fish can escape from their bowls, as we eventually discover. And even concierges are entitled to happiness.

Balasko has many touching scenes, none better than when Renée allows herself to be talked into getting her hair styled. Once the job is done — and we observe the almost magical results ourselves — Renée cannot bring herself to raise her head, and look at her reflection; she’s too afraid of seeing confirmation that she’s still as homely as she always has imagined herself.

At first blush, Igawa makes Kakuro an almost mystical figure; this plays into the mild suggestions of fantasy that Achache adds, at unexpected moments, to her film (as when some of Paloma’s beautiful sketches flicker briefly into life). But that’s misleading; Kakuro is firmly grounded in reality. He’s simply a gentleman in every sense of the word, and Igawa — a longtime acting veteran perhaps remembered, in this country, for Memoirs of a Geisha and The Last Samurai — gives a rich, impeccably layered reading of this role.

God grant that we all could be fortunate enough to have such a neighbor.

Achache and cinematographer Patrick Blossier also suggest magic with occasional camera tricks; watch for the moment when Paloma stalks from her apartment and winds up — in a quick, uninterrupted, impossible single shot — in Renée’s apartment. It’s one of the best uses of cheeky camera trickery I’ve ever seen; you’ll want to buy the DVD, later, just to replay this scene.

Everything about this film is spot-on, from Thierry Rouxel’s set decoration — Kakuro’s apartment is particularly choice, as is Paloma’s art-laden bedroom — to Catherine Bouchard’s costume design. Excellent directors surround themselves with craftspeople whose talents complement the story’s overall vision; Achache has done that here.

Gabriel Yared’s score is particularly enchanting: whimsical as it echoes Paloma’s mordant observations about life, solemn as it follows Renée’s movements through the enclosed, protective embrace of her own space.

The music turns profoundly sad, as well, when the narrative demands; we’re reminded that Yared won a well-deserved Academy Award for his luxuriously expressive work in 1997’s The English Patient.

“We’re all hedgehogs in life,” Paloma eventually decides, “but often without elegance.”

The best films — the truly artistic ones — entertain and envelop us, while offering gentle lessons about human nature. We learn from them: discover that they linger in our hearts and minds.

The Hedgehog is just such a film.

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