Adapting the much-loved novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog, written by philosophy professor and French novelist Muriel Barbery, was always going to be tricky. The actual story in Barbery’s novel is fairly thin – a middle-aged woman, named Renée Michel, works as a gardienne (a bit like a concierge) in a very wealthy apartment building. Renée keeps her self-taught knowledge and love of art and literature to herself to preserve the stereotypical image that the building residents have of gardiennes being dull, frumpy nobodies. Her life consists largely of indulging in small pleasures and meditations on the nature of beauty. Meanwhile a twelve-year-old girl, Paloma Josse, who is living in one of the apartments, plans her own suicide while making profound thoughts and observations.
The film adaptation The Hedgehog by director Mona Achache, making her feature film début, captures some of the essence of Barbery’s novel while nevertheless having to sacrifice a lot of what made the novel so rich. While Renée dominates the novel (she is after all the hedgehog of the title since she is deceptively prickly on the outside), the focus for much of the film is on Paloma. Achache has Paloma making a home movie about what is left of her life, which is a good way of replicating a lot of her internal dialogue from the novel. Unfortunately, no similar techniques are used to express Renée’s inner monologue, which is a great loss.
Nevertheless, the film does in many ways serve as both a work in its own right and as something that complements Barbery’s novel. The reflexiveness and philosophy of the novel is mostly lost but the power of the human connection that Renée makes with Kakuro Ozu, a Japanese retiree who moves into the apartment building, is visualised beautifully. There are also scenes in the film, such as the one where Renée goes to a hairdresser and is taken aback by her unrealised potential to look elegant, where Achache harnesses the power of cinema to generate a surge of emotion in a way that the written word cannot do in the same way.
The Hedgehog has been well cast, especially given that the characters are harder to sympathise with based on their outward behaviour alone. The young emerging actor Garance Le Guillermic inhabits Paloma well even though making Paloma the film’s principal voice does make her a more irritating character than she should be and removes some of the agency from Renée. However, popular French actor Josiane Balasko gives a wonderfully restrained performance as Renée and there is a really strong chemistry between her and Japanese actor Togo Igawa, who plays Kakuro. Renée and Kakuro’s connection is genuinely moving and the actors do a marvellous job expressing a relationship that transcends conventional romantic love.
While The Hedgehog is probably not the best adaptation that it could have possibly been, it does come very close. As a film in its own right it is very enjoyable and transports the audience to its Parisian apartment block setting where class conflict and the universal power of friendship are depicted on a micro level. There is plenty to savour in The Hedgehog for both audiences coming to it fresh and for fans of the novel.