One hundred and sixty-five days before her twelfth birthday, Paloma announces to the old video camera her father gave her that that is when she is going to kill herself.
Paloma [Garance Le Guillermic] is a precocious child: smart, intuitive, artistic. Her family is wealthy – something that depresses her because wealthy people are watched. It’s like being in a fishbowl – and she hates that. Rather than grow up in that fishbowl, she decides she will kill herself on her twelfth birthday. She has it planned out – each day, she takes one of her mother’s anti-depressants to build up a fatal overdose. In the meantime, she records the behavior of her family – a bunch of not particularly inspiring types – and her musings on life and death.
Paloma and her family live in an older Parisian building that houses five luxury apartments and is tended by Mme. Renee Michel [Josiane Balasko], a dowdy, efficient, taciturn but polite widow whose small apartment has two rooms – one of which is filled with books. She reads Tolstoy to her cat. When a new neighbor, Kakuro Ozu [Togo Igawa], moves into the building, he finds Mme Michel and Paloma intriguing, and befriends them. Through Kakuro, Paloma slowly becomes friendly with Mme Michel.
Through their developing relationships, we get to see each of these characters opening up to each other in ways that are quietly absorbing, and each becomes more and more fascinating.
For Paloma, being precocious is a burden. Her intelligence and perceptivity make her aware, far too early, of the hypocrisies of the adults around her. She finds it incredible that her mother, for example, would want to celebrate the ten years of therapy and anti-depressants that have made her feel closer to her plants than to her actual family.
Death, for Paloma, is all about avoiding a microscopically observed life and falling into the patterns of hypocrisy that surround her – until she meets Kakuro, who’s open friendliness, and offer to help her with her Japanese [did I mention how precocious and intelligent she is?] begins to nibble at the edges of her resolve.
Kakuro also sees something in Mme Michel, and his invitation to dinner begins a deep change in her life. For the first time since her husband’s death, she has her hair done and borrows a good dress. She takes to Kakuro’s gentle, open personality – and his cooling – and before you know it, they’ve become very close.
At the same time, Kakuro’s interest in Mme Michele persuades Paloma that she must be someone worth knowing – an intuition that is further expanded when she gets Mme Michel to let her film her. The discovery of the library in Mme Michel’s second room really opens up the eleven-year old’s imagination.
Adapted by writer/director Mona Achache from Muriel Barbery’s novel, The Hedgehog is an appealing combination character study, gentle wisdom and the joys of being open-minded.
Achache uses small details – like Hubert, the goldfish, or an aging elevator that doesn’t always run smoothly – to underline moments of perception. The Hedgehog is a collection of the kind of small moments that make life grand, if only we’d take the time to notice them.
Most of Achache’s emotional beats are presented in the closeness/proximity of the characters. When Paloma’s family is gathered in a room, it is claustrophobic because there is proximity but no intimacy. When Paloma and Kakuro chat in the elevator, or Kakuro and Mme Michele visit, there is proximity but no sense of claustrophobia because the characters achieve quiet moments of genuine intimacy.
Because Mme Michel, Kakuro and Paloma are paying attention, they are able to achieve that intimacy and become real to us and, therefore their discoveries – about life, and each other – matter. That is something most filmmakers almost never accomplish – and certainly not so effectively.
The Hedgehog is a small discovery that is well worth making.
Final Grade: A