Home > Film > The Hedgehog or Le hérisson (2009)

The Hedgehog or Le hérisson (2009)

Inspired by the name of a film called The Hedgehog or Le hérisson (2009), I offer the following alternatives: Fish Called Lazarus or The Revenge of the Dry Cleaners (after all, Roland Barthes was run down by a laundry van). Abandoning this somewhat flippant approach, this is a sadly moving and beautifully observed meditation on the obsessive self-interest people develop when they are unhappy. They wrap themselves in their despair and try to hide themselves away. As in all meditations, this film requires people to speak to each other because, through the words, they have a chance to see into each other’s mind. Some insightful person once said the eyes are the window to the soul. It’s been so popular, we’ve adopted it as an idiom. But it was Hiram Powers who added the equally revealing words, “. . .the mouth the door.” The essence of this film is a simple truth. Sometimes a bare minimum of words, carelessly exchanged, can say too much or just enough, depending on your point of view. For the record, the film is based on the novel, L’élégance du hérisson by Muriel Barbery which is fascinating in its own right.

Josiane Balasko and Garance Le Guillermic


One of the eight luxury flats in this Parisian building has been left vacant thanks to the previous occupant’s sudden heart attack. As the new Japanese tenant, Kakuro Ozo (Togo Igawa) is being introduced to Renée Michel (Josiane Balasko), the consierge, he asks about the Josse family, one of the other tenants. He’s told that the family is unhappy. Without pausing for thought, Renée adds, “Happy families are all alike. . .” He recognises this as being from Anna Karenina, and surprises her by completing it, “. . .but each unhappy family is unique.” (depending on the translation, the end of the quote can be, “. . .but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” — however you translate it, the meaning is essentially the same). Since she has also admitted the name of her cat is Leo (as in Leo Tolstoy), Kakuro immediately assumes she’s a kindred spirit. As an outsider, he looks beyond the role she occupies as a lowly consierge and sees an immensely cultured woman hiding beneath the drab exterior.


Later, the consierge explains the situation to Paloma Josse (Garance Le Guillermic), an eleven-year-old manic depressive in the making, who has decided to kill herself on her twelfth birthday. So long as she conforms to the archetype of a consierge, our “old” lady will be able to hide in plain sight. So every morning, she switches on her television (leaving the sound at its lowest setting so it will not disturb her while she reads). She’s surly to all-comers and, when she’s in the mood, she contrives to fill the entrance hall with the aroma of cassoulet — a hearty peasant casserole dish featuring beans. This means she’s socially invisible in this block of luxury apartments. No-one rich will admit to seeing, let alone actually talking with, such a socially inferior person. Because of her grumpy personality, no-one will dare disturb her unless it’s unavoidable. Hence, Paloma confers the nickname of the Hedgehog — prickly on the outside and sweet once inside the defences.

Togo Igawa delivers a quiet and restrained performance, full of humanity


Indeed, as Paloma counts down towards the day of her suicide, she finds herself drawn to spend time with Madame Michel. In some senses, they are good for each other. The consierge was married but childless. Her husband died of cancer fifteen years earlier. In her loneliness, she’s hidden herself away, surrounded by hundreds of books and videos of classic films from around the world. Paloma is a member of a dysfunctional family. Her father is successful, her mother is in therapy. Her sister is in love and deeply embarrassed by her family. And Paloma? She thinks no-one will miss her if she slips away. The only question is what she should be doing on the day she dies. For her, this is a vital question. Death cannot be just a tawdry event. It must have meaning. To complete the background information, Kakuro’s wife also died of cancer and he’s deeply lonely. He befriends Paloma and they play Go (which Paloma rightly says was invented by the Chinese some two thousand years ago). The child is a kind of bridge between the adults although Kakuro would have tried to befriend Renée anyway.


The question we’re to consider as this drama unfolds is culturally complex. When an outsider asks, can a hermit suddenly leave the “cave” and re-enter the world? She has been cutting her own hair and never wears make-up. She has no clothes other than those required to protect her modesty and allow her to move the rubbish bins around without getting too dirty. Worse, she’s out of the habit of talking with and to people. Since her husband died, she’s deceived herself into thinking she’s worthless so she can act the part convincingly. In this, she not only considers herself. How can she been seen with others when it may cause them embarrassment? These are not questions that can be answered quickly or easily. They go to the heart of what a person has chosen to become and the extent to which society is flexible enough to allow people to step outside their declared roles and become something different.

Togo Igawa and Garance Le Guillermic avoid being upstaged by the cats


In this film, ignoring cause and effect, there’s a death. It occurs on the day the person decided it was safe to love again. That’s what makes this film a tragedy. The meaning one draws comes from the affection exchanged before the death. Without that exchange, there would have been no sense of loss in those left behind. They would not have appreciated the need for life to go on, that there can be hope for the future despite the fact people you know and love fall by the wayside. The Hedgehog or Le hérisson (2009) has been a long time in finding its way to my door. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, direct in its honesty and deeply moving in the end. Despite the faults you would find in anyone eleven-years old and her adopted eccentricities, Paloma moves serenely onwards to her appointment with death. It will be a waste to lose someone as intelligent and artistically talented, but that’s her decision. Kakuro finds he misses his wife most on ceremonial occasions like his birthday. And our Hedgehog realises she cannot always hide behind her books and find peace of mind. In all this, the simple piano music provided by Gabriel Yared gently counterpoints what’s happening on the screen, while the deft hand of Mona Achache provides the screenplay and her direction offers understated brilliance.This is a delightful film you should go out of your way to see.


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