At the outset of The Hedgehog, based on Muriel Barbery’s international bestseller The Elegance of the Hedgehog, 11-year-old Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic) calmly announces her desire to kill herself upon her next birthday. But don’t worry about that—the majority of Mona Achache’s debut feature bros down not so much with this overcast little rich girl, but Renée (Josiane Balasko), the janitor at the same Parisian building of luxury apartments and the presumed titular subject.
While Paloma skulks about, filming her much-loathed bourgeois family unit with a Hi-8 camera from the shadows, Renée lives a life of more manageable internal suffering. A doughy hermit who, like the filmmakers, almost never leaves her place of work and residence, she’s concealed the fact that she’s a bibliophile with a yen for Japanese cinema. (“No one wants a pretentious janitor.”) Her invisible existence is in any case noticed by new resident Mr. Ozu (Togo Igawa), not only not a relation to the filmmaker great, she discovers, but also not particularly familiar with his work.
The two’s quiet, gentle, hesitant courtship—following one makeover sequence, natch—provides the film with some much-needed low-key ballast, playing into the truth that damaged middle aged people struggling to eke out a love affair, as played by consummate professionals, is always moving. (Balasko, likely most recognizable to American audiences for the tiresome hit known stateside as French Twist, which she wrote and co-starred in, does especially fine work, struggling to avoid pity while conveying passion during a mostly catatonic seduction.)
That doesn’t apply to much else in The Hedgehog, from Paloma’s one-note evil parents, who celebrate 10 years of therapy with champagne and don’t even know Renée’s first name, to Paloma herself, whom the filmmakers seem to find an amusingly precocious moppet, prone to humorless soliloquies during dinner parties, but who is as cartoonish and unbelievable and annoying as the creatures that spawned her. The film around her exists in part to teach her that life is not meant to be taken trivially, a lesson, come the needlessly cruel ending, not learned by the people who made The Hedgehog.