Just now making it to the U.S., the 2009 French film The Hedgehog opens by introducing us to Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic), the 11-year-old daughter of a well-to-do family living in an upscale Parisian apartment building. As presented by first-time writer-director Mona Achache (from Muriel Barbery’s novel), Paloma is the kind of prodigy that can send you running to your thesaurus to find a better word than “genius.”
When her father gives her his old camcorder, she turns filmmaker, documenting her life with incisive commentary about her parents and sister. When she draws pictures on her bedroom wall, the result is a Magic Marker mural to rival Leonardo or Michelangelo. Her animated sketches in a flip-book would make Walt Disney’s entire staff hang their heads in shame. When she favors her family with a witty bon mot, Oscar Wilde or Noël Coward should have been so brilliant. (“Psychoanalysis is second only to religion in its love of misery,” sniffs Paloma, prompting her sister to say, “Well, that was a tasty one.”)
Despite all this, or maybe because of it, Paloma is so bored that she has decided to commit suicide on her twelfth birthday, 165 days away. Frankly, by the time we’ve spent 15 minutes with Little Miss Perfectly Spoiled-Rotten Brat, she’s become so insufferable we can hardly wait for that blessed day to arrive.
Fortunately for Paloma and the movie, another character pops up to make her rethink the idea of killing herself—and to allow us to reconsider the thought of murdering her. This grace comes from an unexpected source: her building’s concierge, Renée Michel (Josiane Balasko).
In the movie’s English subtitles, the word “concierge” is translated as “janitor,” and it’s a smart choice, emphasizing the job’s menial and déclassé nature. “Concierge” tends to sound rather hoity-toity in English (other than this, the subtitles are often maladroit: “Life and death result from good or poor construction”).
Renée is a grumpy middle-aged frump, her clothes dowdy, her hair an unruly, haphazard mop that she cuts only whenever some part of it gets in her way. She’s a closet bibliophile and an admirer of Japanese cinema, but she keeps all that to herself. “Nobody likes a pretentious janitor,” she says.
Things begin to change for Renée—and for Paloma, the ever-observant bystander—when a new tenant moves into the building. He’s Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa), a gracious, 60-something Japanese gentleman who takes a polite but genuine interest in Renée, especially after he hears her quote Tolstoy (“All happy families are alike”), a thing that goes right over the heads of the building’s snootier French residents.
The halting, gradual change that comes over Renée is what distracts us from wanting to throttle the precocious smartass Paloma, and it’s Josiane Balasko that makes it work. Balasko is a major star in France, but her exposure on this side of the pond has been limited. I only knew of her from the 1995 picture French Twist, which she directed, co-wrote and starred in. I found that movie coarse and self-glorifying—every character except the one Balasko played was silly and obnoxious—so I was a bit unprepared for the subtle and muted performance she gives here. Judging from pictures of her online, she has a certain—shall we say—full-figured middle-aged glamour, so seeing her as the lumpen, frowzy Renée must have been for French audience what seeing Lucille Ball play a bag lady was for Americans.
As Mr. Ozu’s courtly friendship works upon Renée—she reluctantly, at the urging of her cleaning-lady friend, upgrades her wardrobe and has her hair finally dressed by a pro—we see her eyes brighten in almost imperceptible stages, like a person who has sat alone in darkness for so long that at first she doesn’t notice the sun is rising.
In the end, The Hedgehog may not turn out the way we’d like it to; there’s a “surprise” development that has cropped up in so many movies lately it’s become a cliché (think One Day). Still, it’s OK. Renée finds a kind of contentment, and Paloma decides life may be worth living after all. There’s even a hint that the girl might grow up a little and stop being such a pill.