Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic) is an annoyingly precocious upper-middle-class Parisian 11-year-old whose view of life and adulthood is so jaded that she plans to end it all on her 12th birthday. She tells us this in the opening moments of "The Hedgehog," but so matter-of- factly that we are not supposed to believe she means it. Or does she?
Based on the internationally bestselling novel "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" by Muriel Barbery, and written and directed by Mona Achache, this is a film that starts out cynically and gradually morphs into sentimentality of a particularly high gloss.
Paloma's parents are caring but preoccupied, her yappy older sister likes to varnish her big toenail, and Paloma, much to their annoyance, records it all with her father's old camcorder. Her personal video diary is replete with voice-overs, such as "If things have no meaning the mind must deal with that." Very French.
Paloma's only confidante, it turns out, is Renée Michel (Josiane Balasko), the grumpy concierge of her pricey apartment complex. Renée dresses drably, her hair is a disaster, and her only constant companion is the cat to whom she reads Tolstoy. Renée, you see, is a woman of elegance – a bristly hedgehog with an inner core of goodness. It takes the arrival of new tenant Mr. Ozu (Togo Igawa), a Japanese gentleman of the utmost reserve, to draw her out. Despite her rebuffs, he sees right into her inner hedgehog. He gifts her with antiquarian volumes of "Anna Karenina." The guy is just too perfect.
I kept expecting Mr. Ozu to turn into a serial killer or something, but that's just my old Hollywood bad habits coming to the fore. But really, Mr. Ozu is too perfect, and the fairy-tale-ish confab between him and Renée carries with it a whiff of East-meets-West romantic inscrutability.
Also, Renée's situation as concierge – the subtitles translate her job, not altogether inaccurately, as "janitor" – isn't really played up in class terms. Achache is a bit too starry-eyed. Even Paloma's death wish doesn't ring true, partly because, as Le Guillermic reads her lines, there's no conviction behind them. Paloma is essentially an author's conceit. How else can you explain a child saying things like "Only psychiatry rivals religion for love of suffering"?
Balasko, however, makes "The Hedgehog" worth seeing. She is often reason enough to see any movie she figures in. (Two of her best: "French Twist," "Too Beautiful For You.") Equally adept at freewheeling comedy and deep-down pathos, Balasko brings Renée to life even when her character is near catatonic.
She doesn't pluck our heartstrings. When Renée remarks of herself, "You're just a hideous janitor, a mad old cow," we are not asked to feel sorry for her, because inside Renée's sadness is a furiousness that will ultimately be her salvation. She has to fight herself to be happy but it's worth it – for her and for us. Grade: B (Unrated.)