Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Hedgehog (Rhoades)

“The Hedgehog”
Introduces Prickly People

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

A French philosophy professor wrote a novel titled “L'élégance du hérisson” (Translation: “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”). It is not about nocturnal insectivorous spiny mammals of the subfamily Erinaceinae. Rather it’s about a suicidal 11-year-old girl and a reclusive concierge who hides her intelligence and culture behind a dust bucket.
After teaching at the University of Burgundy, Muriel Barbery wrote her first novel “Une Gourmandise” in 2000. That was followed by “L'élégance du hérisson” in 2006.
A character named Renée Michel appears in both books. Renée is a 54-year-old widowed concierge in a Parisian apartment building. She describes herself as “short, ugly, chubby,” with “bunions on my feet and, on certain difficult mornings, it seems, the breath of a mammoth.” The author refers to Renée as having the elegance of a hedgehog.
However, Renée has hidden qualities. Self-taught, she reads works of philosopher Immanuel Kant, admires 17th-century Dutch paintings, enjoys Japanese films, and listens to composers like Purcell and Mahler. She even named her cat Leo after Leo Tolstoy.
As Muriel Barbery puts it, “I was inspired by the idea of a reserved, cultured concierge who turned stereotypes on their head and at the same time created a compelling comic effect. With her keen perspective on things, this character then opened the door on a kind of social criticism.”
“L'élégance du hérisson” remained on the bestseller list for 102 weeks, selling 1.2 million copies in hardback alone. It won the 2007 French Booksellers Prize, the 2007 Brive-la-Gaillarde Reader’s Prize, and the Prix du Rotary International in France.
Now the novel has been made into a French-subtitled movie simply called “The Hedgehog.” It’s playing at the Tropic Cinema.
Directed by 27-year-old Mona Achache, this loose adaptation stars Josiane Balasko (“Hanging Offense”) as Renée, Garance Le Guillermic (“I Hate My Best Friends’ Kids”) as the suicidal Paloma, and Togo Igawa  (“Memoirs of a Geisha”) as Mr. Ozu, the Japanese neighbor.
Promising to kill herself on her twelfth birthday, the bored girl Paloma says, “Planning to die doesn’t mean I let myself go like a rotten vegetable. What matters isn’t the fact of dying or when you die. It’s what you’re doing at that precise moment.” For her, it will be making a film about the absurdities of life.
Upon hearing Renée utter a quote from “Anna Karenina,” Kakuro Ozu recognizes her for the erudite person she is behind her mask. He invites her to tea, takes her to dinner, drawing her out.
Paloma films everything with a 8mm video camera, narrating her humorous observations about her neighbors. Her view on life (and death) begins to change as she notices the concierge and her Japanese suitor.
Little happens, but “The Hedgehog” is a delicate study of the human condition. A portrait of three outcasts, people who nobody sees. This is Mona Achache’s first feature film.
As one moviegoer puts it, “No car chases, no explosions, no convoluted plot twists. And yet it is captivating.”
Author Muriel Barbery is philosophical about this movie version of her book. “I limited myself to a few comments on the screenplay, nothing more. Book and film represent two very different adventures.”
Did she like the movie? “Like my characters, I ask myself: what do I like, what moves me? A good novel, of course, but also the brilliant manga of Taniguchi. Or a film made well and made purely for entertainment.”
“The Hedgehog” is a film made well.
[from Solares Hill]

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