At the warming center of this delightful little French film is an unlikely triumvirate of engaging characters who find themselves interwoven in a triangle of circumstance and compassion. We are guided through the story primarily by 11-year-old Paloma, a potentially depressive but wise young girl, ever ready with her video camera to document the everyday absurdities of her bourgeois family in a Parisian apartment; an externally grumpy, frumpy janitor with a heart of gold; and an elderly Japanese widower, who nurtures a friendship verging on love affair with the janitor.
They are, for most societal and cinematic standards, “off the radar” of interest, but that very supposed “marginality” is what gives the film — an adaptation of Muriel Barbery’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog — much of its calm, deep charm. The janitor, deemed to be like “a hedgehog” for her gruff surface and inner depth, is the real centerpiece and agent of change, as one who views herself as “the archetype” of what is expected of her social position, but whose cultural interest in Tolstoy and Ozu become touchstones of a burgeoning later-life relationship.
First-time feature director Mona Achache’s film, with the novelistic gears beneath its structure, unfolds with a deceptively easygoing air, yet things are not as happenstance or naturalistic as it might appear. Themes thread through and reconnect at various points in the story, including such seemingly casual lines as one our young wise protagonist utters early on in the film: “Spend your life in a fish bowl and you end up in a body bag.” The offbeat and humane tale, alternating between the stuff of commonplace life observations and the feeling of a parable, is given added glow through a fine musical score by Gabriel Yared — highlighted by cello motifs — and cinematographer Patrick Blossier’s expressive power within the enclosed, microcosmic confines of the apartment building containing our heroes.
Occasionally during the film, we might get the feeling of one too many calculated or smug enchantment moments on its narrative path. But all in all, The Hedgehog comes across as a lovely and moving celebration of life, from the margins.