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Movie Review

The Hedgehog

‘Hedgehog’ has its good points

(Courtesy photo / NeoClassics)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / September 2, 2011

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Paloma, a wildly precocious 11-year-old, intends to kill herself on her 12th birthday. “The fishbowl isn’t for me,’’ she confides to her ever-present video camera as she films her surroundings. Actually, it’s not bad, as fishbowls go. Paloma shares a luxurious Paris apartment with a Cabinet minister father; a mother about to celebrate her 10th year in therapy (that is the right verb, too); and an older sister studying for her doctorate.

As played by Garance Le Guillermic, Paloma teeters between adorability and insufferability without ever quite crossing the line. Le Guillermic has a long, thin, querulous face, like a toy hatchet, its sharpness softened by glasses and a tangle of corn-colored hair. She manages to give an unmannered performance of a highly mannered character. Is that video camera more club or shield? So long as Le Guillermic’s the one wielding it, the question doesn’t much matter.

The title character isn’t Paloma, but the building’s concierge. Madame Michel is prickly on the outside, soft and lovable within. She’s named her cat after Tolstoy, has Ozu movies in her video collection, and needs only a few notes to identify Mozart’s Requiem. She describes herself as “poor, discreet, and insignificant.’’ Muriel Barbery didn’t intend a French variant on “The Help’’ when she wrote “The Elegance of the Hedgehog,’’ the 2006 international bestseller on which the movie is based. But they have the theme of selfless-suffering servitude in common.

For much of the movie, Josiane Balasko is all glumness and peasant disdain as Madame Michel. Her performance is impressive, the way a sinkhole is (in this case, the sinkhole is emotional), but that doesn’t make her character at all attractive. Which raises the question of what exactly does the gracious Japanese businessman (Togo Igawa) who moves into the building see in this woman? Having a romance hinge on two characters recognizing the opening of “Anna Karenina’’ turns meeting cute into meeting comp lit.

Balasko and Igawa play off of each other well - his pearly formality both distances him from her glowering and defuses it. Enchantment will go a long way toward overcoming implausibility, but there’s not enough of the former here - and far too much of the latter.

What’s so strange about “The Hedgehog’’ is that it ought to be a complete mess: a set of self-conscious conceits waiting to wilt. That they take so long to do so is owing to the actors, of course, but most of all to writer-director Mona Achache. Remember that name. This is her first feature. Achache’s direction is deft and assured. She lends the film a nice, easy rhythm that conceals the story’s alternating whimsy and melodrama and almost compensates for them (almost). Quite a lot of “The Hedgehog’’ is moving, and even more is buoyantly comic. Achache takes a set of leaden balloons and keeps them aloft for very nearly all of the movie’s 95 minutes. But it’s only a matter of time before those balloons bump up against porcupine quills and go pop.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

THE HEDGEHOG Written and directed by: Mona Achache, based on Muriel Barbery’s novel “The Elegance of the Hedgehog’’

Starring: Josiane Balasko, Garance Le Guillermic, Togo Igawa

At: Kendall Square, West Newton

Running time: 95 minutes

Unrated (a child contemplates suicide; an unexpected death is shocking, though not gory)

In French, with subtitles

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