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Written & Directed by Mona Achache, based on the novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Produced by Anne-Dominique Toussaint
Released by NeoClassics Films

French with English subtitles

France/Italy. 98 min. Not rated
Josiane Balasko, Garance Le Guillermic, Togo Igawa, Anne Brochet, Wladimir Yordanoff

Though writer/director Mona Achache cautions that her charming debut film is only “freely inspired” by Muriel Barbery’s internationally best-selling novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog, the primary difference is that the very precocious 11-year-old, Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic), now visually tracks the days to her planned suicide on her 12th birthday. Instead of a written journal, she monitors her family and bourgeois neighbors with a camcorder handed down from her politician father, and accompanies her recorded tour of her upscale Paris apartment building with a whispered commentary on his liberal politics and the psychotherapeutic history of her mother, who chatters incessantly to plants as much as to her dinner guests. But her parents are more lovingly indulgent than oblivious. 

Barely noticed by Paloma, or anyone else in the building, is the resident of the ground floor apartment (called “the lodge” in the subtitles instead of “the loge”). Virtually invisible to everyone, the concierge (the subtitles call her “the janitor”) is deliciously and slyly played by Josiane Balasko. With bushy, unkempt hair, and thick eyebrows, the frumpy grump efficiently mops, polishes, wheels garbage cans about, and watches over a homeless eccentric in the alley. Out of sight of everyone but her cat, she leads a secret life steeped in literature, sipping fragrant tea, in a cozy library stacked with books.

But when her cat escapes while the elegant and mysteriously exotic (to all the neighbors) Japanese gentleman Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa) moves into the building, the concierge accidentally reveals to him her cat’s name, Leo. She figures out his cats are named Kitty and Levin, and they realize a surprising mutual interest in Tolstoy (as well as the films of Yasujiro Ozu). Not only does he initiate conversation with her, and then more, he’s the first one in the building to call her by her name, Renée Michel. Her visits upstairs to his apartment are a cross-cultural adventure, as if she’s visiting Japan, and by noticing her hidden intellect and interests, Mr. Ozu gradually inspires her delightful outer and inner metamorphosis. She even gets the nerve to venture outside the building with him in her new look. The residents passing by don’t even recognize her. Mr. Ozu also helps out Paloma with her new Japanese vocabulary in the building’s antique, rickety elevator, and she begins visiting him and his young grandchild for a game of Go. There, Paloma starts to see the concierge through his eyes and senses a kindred spirit. Together, they hide in the concierge’s sanctuary like hedgehogs, until Renée finally reveals the story of her life to Paloma’s camera.

But how Renée ended up as a concierge isn’t quite as sad as the cruelties and neglect her character suffered in the book, and that’s one of the touches that subtly changes the darker tone to make her story feel more like Paul Gallico’s Mrs. ’Arris Goes to Paris. In the parallel coming-of-age story, the mischievous Paloma steals her mother’s pills in an effort to kill herself, but even that has amusing consequences. In general, her storyline feels more like the determinedly cheerful Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer, lacking the will-she-or-won’t-she suspense from the novel,  and the surprise ending loses some of its punch and feels even more out-of-kilter than in the book. The almost-too-sweet film’s actual emotional climax actually arrives earlier, with a simple hug between Paloma and Renée—a transforming human connection. Nora Lee Mandel
August 19, 2011



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