Can an elegant book be transformed into an elegant film?

The Hedgehog
(Le hérisson)

Directed by Mona Achache

Starring Josiane Balasko, Garance Le Guillermic and Togo Igawa

Not Rated

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The Hedgehog proves that a film is best enjoyed if you watch it with low expectations at the outset. Admittedly, I read Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog this summer and enjoyed it so much that I was convinced that the film adaptation would be an absolute failure. After all, aren’t all movie adaptations of books at least something of a disappointment? Morbid curiosity is what drove me to watch The Hedgehog, and, well, thank goodness for morbid curiosity.

Barbery’s novel centers around the goings-on of a rich Parisian apartment building, particularly the lives of Paloma Josse, a brilliant but suicidal pre-teen, and Renée Michel, the building’s caretaker. Both conceal their true natures — while Paloma fakes academic mediocrity, working-class Renée is an autodidact who reads Tolstoy to her cat and can wax poetic about a cup of tea — but learn to open up at least a little more when a retired Japanese man, Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa), moves in. The novel, narrated by Renée, is interspersed with journal entries from Paloma.

I hoped that the film, then, would proceed in About A Boy style: As Hugh Grant and Nicholas Hoult narrated the ups and downs of their lives, so I expected that Josiane Balasko’s Renée and Garance Le Guillermic’s Paloma would narrate their inner thoughts and thus preserve at least some of Barbery’s words. Instead, the film opens with a slightly unkempt blonde girl hiding in a closet, turning a camcorder toward herself and beginning her story. You see, this Paloma is not a traditional journal-keeper. This Paloma films members of her family — much to their annoyance — with her father’s old camcorder. This Paloma drugs Hubert, her sister’s goldfish, with her mother’s antidepressants, mistakes it for dead, and flushes it down the toilet.

It is interesting, though, how the film shapes the expressions of the main characters. Paloma probably expresses herself to the audience the most, although many times her presence is sadly comic. Her characterization in the novel may be that of an artistic soul, mature beyond her years, but in the film she is a highly intelligent, yet ordinary and very often silly, girl burdened with a distant, unsympathetic family. Renée, on the other hand, is a shadowy presence throughout the film whose tangibility as a character builds up slowly but steadily. In a supporting role, Anne Brochet, as Paloma’s mother, Solange, plays her detached, upper-class housewife role to perfection as she breezes around in chic kaftan-like garments and waters her plants.

Overall, Mona Achache’s adaptation is a satisfactory one. And even if Paloma’s use of the camcorder upset me initially, it does accompany a rather endearing trait of pushing her glasses up onto her head (and sometimes getting stuck in that mess of curls). As the characters do their best to swim in “the fishbowl” that Paloma calls life, somehow they manage to come together in a manner that can only be called elegant.