A quote from Judge Alice Nelson speaking to her disbelieving 4 year old: "For the last time child, a hedgehog is not the same as a porcupine!"
"We're all hedgehogs in life. But often without elegance."—Paloma
Go in with your eyes wide open and try not to make any assumptions; this is the best way to view the French film The Hedgehog. What on the surface appears to be the tale of an annoying and nihilistic 11 year old girl planning her suicide, is really a story about love, friendship, and what results when people decide to live the life they've been given.
Facts of the Case
In spite of all her wealth and privilege, Paloma Josse (Garance Le Guillermic) fears she is heading for what she calls "the fishbowl"—a world where wealthy adults bang like flies on the glass—and she wants no part of it. So in 165 days, on June 16th (the day she turns 12), Paloma will take her own life. And with camera in hand Paloma begins documenting her final days on the planet. But she meets a new neighbor named Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa, The Last Samurai) and simultaneously forms a friendship with the stern and standoffish building superintendent, Mrs. Michel (Josiane Balasko), both of who help the young girl learn that life is what you make it.
Written and directed by Mona Achache and based on the novel by Muriel Barbary, The Hedgehog is an amazing little film. Achache has a wonderful sense of story, giving us a quiet and intimate film that explores the unlikely friendship between three very different people. Considering Guillermic's age and minimal acting experience, she is able to stand her ground with both Igawa and Balasko. As the often overlooked Paloma, she doesn't warrant much sympathy, but you don't despise her either. Her mother is weepy, self-obsessed, and overly medicated; preferring to spend her free time talking to her plants and showering them with the love that Paloma and her older sister Colombe (Sarah Le Picard) can only dream of receiving, while their father is more interested in his work than his family. Still, Paloma's life is hardly suicide worthy and you get the sense that she has no intention of going ahead with it. She's just looking for the parental love and attention every child craves.
The one complaint about The Hedgehog is the stereotypical depiction of Paloma's parents. Anne Brochet and Wladimir Yordanoff do a fine job with what they have to work with, there just isn't much there. The story offers up the typical knock on the "evil rich" that cheapens an otherwise wonderful story. Even so, it doesn't ruin the film. After all, these roles are minor and easily overshadowed by Kokuro, Renee, and Paloma.
Paloma's neighbors form the heart of The Hedgehog. Renee is a heavy set woman in drab clothes with her ragged hair pulled back from her face. To the residents of the posh building, she is invisible, but to Kokuro she is far more than she appears. Since the death of her husband 15 years ago, Renee has lived a lonely life with her cat, her books, and a stash of dark chocolate. It isn't until she meets the suave and handsome Kukuro that Renee believes she's worth anything. Achache doesn't turn Kokuro into the wise old Asian savior who gives Renee her sense of worth; he is simply someone who helps her to see she was worthy all along. He is the catalyst that helps free both Paloma and Renee from the facades they have lived behind far too long.
So much of The Hedgehog is a serene experience that builds slowly as we get to know these characters. Then suddenly it hurls forward at lightning speed to a shocking conclusion that caused me to shriek in anguish. Even my husband, who is fairly even keeled, let out a "Noooo!" that would rival the controversial utterance of Darth Vader in the Blu-ray version of Return of the Jedi. It takes the wind out of your sails and kicks that good old happy ending right in its ass.
"What matters isn't the fact of dying, but what you're doing when you die." This is the lesson Paloma eventually learns, but it takes a tragic event for her to realize it.
The Hedgehog is presented in standard definition 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and surprisingly doesn't feel claustrophobic considering most of the film takes place in an apartment building. The Dolby 5.1 Surround mix does a nice job of highlighting the breathy and beautiful quality of the French dialogue. Subtitles are easy to read, thanks to the bold yellow lettering that is never washed out by what's happening in the film. Achache's subtle use of Gabriel Yared's score makes the beautifully dramatic music all the more powerful. Not much in the way of bonus features: a few deleted scenes, the theatrical trailer, and a photo gallery with musical accompaniment.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Hedgehog is definitely not a kid's film. In fact, I wouldn't let anyone under the age of 12 see this movie, not because of any grotesque sex or violence but because of the finale's shocking nature. Startling enough for a so-called grown up like me, any pre-teen who might think this is a feel good girly movie from the playful looking DVD cover, let me warn you in advance it is not. Unless you parents want to spend a hefty chunk of change on therapy, watch the film first then decide what's best for your kids.
As someone who has no tolerance for whiny bratty kids (of course, I don't mean my own), I expected The Hedgehog to be one of those "the kids are smarter than all the adults" films I hate so much. Not so. This is a love story, pure and simple.
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