Renée (Josiane Balasko) is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building, who meets with society’s expectations of what a concierge should be; reliable though totally uncultured. But beneath this façade lies the real Renée: passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her employers, with their outwardly successful but emotionally void lives. Meanwhile, several floors up, 11-year-old Paloma Josse (Garance Le Guillermic) is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid out for her, and in an effort to show how absurd her life is decides to film the people around her. But unknown to them both, a sudden acquaintance with their elegant and enigmatic new neighbour, Mr Ozu (Togo Igawa), will change their lives forever.
The convergence of three sad, special souls in a Parisian apartment block is the basis for a refined study in life affirmation in Mona Achache’s The Hedgehog, based upon Muriel Barbury’s best-selling 2006 novel L'elegance du herisson. Steeped in elegance and artistry, and lovingly embracing the fragility of happiness in a world preoccupied with preconceptions and assumptions, this most literate of adaptations asks its audience to discover the characters as they discover themselves; such confidence in a script is rare nowadays, and it’s a joy to behold.
The film pivots on the opening scene revelation that 11-year-old Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic, in a performance beyond her years) despises her closeted upper-middle class existence and plans to take her own life on the occasion of her 12th birthday. A chance encounter with a new tenant, Mr. Ozu (Togo Igawa), provides a glimmer of hope for Paloma – a feeling shared by the building’s long-term caretaker, the surly Renee Michel (Josiane Balasko), whose secret love for the great works of literature is revealed when Ozu recognises a throwaway line of hers as coming from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
The film gently develops in a series of sweetly-staged scenes that reveal the sadness of the three characters existence and the growing sense of interdependence upon each other they feel as their friendships grow. All three actors share scenes of delicate beauty – Renee’s reluctant acceptance of Paloma’s hug; Paloma and Mr. Ozu’s first meeting in the apartment block elevator; and the sideways glances Mr. Ozu and Renee share as they watch Yasujirô Ozu’s The Munekata Sisters (the film is a favourite of hers, and she asks if he is related to the great Japanese director).
Paloma is recording the final days of her life on an old video camera, and this most cinematic of devices allows for straight-to-camera moments of honesty that capture the main character’s motivations in profound depth. Given the emotional investment Achache has asked of the audience, the film’s tragic final reel is a gut-wrencher but, nevertheless, is handled with all the dignity the film has afforded the characters to that point.
Making her feature-length film debut, Mona Achache displays a fearlessness in her approach to a multi-tiered character study with psychological and existential overtones, all set within the confines of what amounts to a single-setting chamber piece. But she proves to be a director of tremendous confidence and ultimately does the much-loved source material proud. With her exemplary cast nailing every emotional beat and her cinematographer, veteran Patrick Blossier (Eden Is West, 2009), filling the frame with a richness drawn from the most mundane of settings, Achache has crafted a film of warmth, intelligence and spiritual resonance.