Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Hedgehog: Lessons from a French Super

Paloma Josse feels cursed to be young and bourgeoisie. Everyone should have such a cross to bear. She intends to rectify the situation permanently on her twelfth birthday. However, she receives some inadvertent life lessons that from her apartment building’s frumpy concierge (think “super” in New Yorker parlance) that might change her perspective in Mona Achache’s The Hedgehog (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The youngest Josse daughter thinks her parents are superficial hypocrites. She is not necessarily wrong, but she is unremittingly judgmental in her assessments. To bolster the case for her supposedly impending suicide, she films her family’s embarrassing candid moments, while adding her own withering commentary. Through happenstance, one day she finds herself alone in the ground floor apartment of the prickly concierge Madame RenĂ©e Michel, the metaphorical “Hedgehog,” discovering a hidden library of classic world literature.

Finally encountering an adult whose secret self is actually cool, Josse begins to spend time in the concierge’s apartment. Though her family is hopeless, Josse is not the only one who can tell Madame Michel is a woman of substance. The wealthy and sophisticated new Japanese tenant Kakuro Ozu picks up on it right away, confusing her no end with his respectful advances.

Though the reliance on characters talking into handheld cameras as a form of video diary is a shopworn contrivance that should set off audience alarm bells at this point, Hedgehog redeems the practice through an incisive ending that is impossible to discuss, beyond saying it is strangely touching and also so perfectly French. Yet, even before that point, the halting chemistry between Madame Michel and Monsieur Ozu is rendered with such exquisite restraint by Josiane Balasko and Togo Igawa, respectively, it thoroughly holds viewer sympathies. There are no corny swoons or cute banter for them, just honestly smart dialogue.

It also rather helps that Garance Le Guillermic displays considerable screen presence as young Josse, the French Wednesday Addams, though the rest of her family come across as wafer-thin caricatures. Yet, the mature adults, Balasko and Igawa, unquestionably carry Hedgehog, the latter particularly conveying the wisdom of experience so rarely seen in such a charismatic manner on film. Indeed, Igawa’s performance would be considered a front-running Oscar contender in a hipper world.

Hedgehog truly is a film that sneaks up on viewers, in more ways than one. Amongst other things, it turns out to be a wonderful valentine to classic Japanese cinema (though the character Ozu assures Madame Michel he is no relation to the great director). Heartily recommended for the more casual art-house patrons, as well as hardcore Francophiles (and connoisseurs of Japanese cinema), The Hedgehog opens this Friday (8/19) in New York at the Angelika Film Center downtown and the Lincoln Plaza uptown.