Something there is about little French films that is like discovering a free-floating water lily in a quiet stream: it approaches you, shares it lovely scent as it passed, and then continues on out of sight, leaving you warmly happy at the privilege of observing a gentle bit of nature if only for a moment. THE HEDGEHOG does just that. Mona Achache directs her screen play adapted from the novel "L'élégance du hérisson" by Muriel Barbery, casts an impeccable group of actors who bring to life this tale of how serendipitous nods of love can alter lives.
The title comes form the definition of a hedgehog as a prickly-on- the-outside, cuddly-on-the-inside critter that is often misjudged. And that definition applies to several characters in the story though it is most directly connected to bourgeoisie apartment house concierge Renee Michel (Josiane Balasko), a middle-aged and sour hermit who lives to mop the floor, distribute mail, and to give you a wary eye to passersby. The building is inhabited by rich people, a fact we learn from the narrator of the story - Paloma Josse (Garance Le Guillermic), an eleven-year-old girl disturbed by her privileged life in Paris. Her father Paul (Wladimir Yordanoff) is distracted by his government job while her mother Solange (Anne Brochet) drinks champagne with anti-depressants while talking to her plants, and her sister Colombe (Sarah Le Picard) focuses her shallow life on a pet goldfish. She decides she will kill herself in 165 days on her 12th birthday and begins to document the hypocrisy of the adults in her apartment building with her father's old 8mm camcorder. Her harsh judgments do not seem to include Renee: though they are at opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum Paloma senses something unusual about Renee, explores her apartment and discovers the extensive secret library in Renee's back room, and that the often untidy appearing and distant matron reads Tolstoy to her cat Leo. Renee's hedgehog appearance does indeed contain a cuddly inside, a fact that is revealed when a new tenant - Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa) moves in and he and Paloma realize they are kindred spirits. Mr. Ozu is a wealthy Japanese businessman and he strikes up a friendship with Paloma as they discuss their shared curiosity for the downstairs concierge woman and their delight in playing the game Go with one another. Kakuro's attention to and kindness for Renee creates changes: Renee is instructed by the maid Manuela Lopez (Ariane Ascaride) to have her hair done and to wear a new dress when Renee reluctantly accepts Kakuro's invitation to dinner. As Paloma observes the changes Kakuro creates in both Renee and in herself, her own coming of age becomes a much less pessimistic prospect. `Planning to die doesn't mean I let myself go like a rotten vegetable. What matters isn't the fact of dying or when you die. It's what you're doing at that precise moment.' And from there the story moves like that free floating water lily - passing on through life enlightened by its presence.
Josiane Belasko, Garance Le Guillermic, and Togo Igawa are brilliant in their roles. The script is quiet, intelligent and ultimately deeply touching, but it is the direction of Mona Achache that polishes this little gem to a glow. Clearly this is one of the finest films of the past decade. Grady Harp, August 12