'The Hedgehog'

Faux-intellectual fare that makes auds feel clever while delivering an old-fashioned fairy tale.

An intellectual concierge, a precocious 11-year-old and a refined Japanese gentleman are the strange trio at the heart of the sometimes uplifting, sometimes cynical “The Hedgehog,” based on Muriel Barbery’s bestselling novel. The kind of faux-intellectual fare that makes auds feel clever while also delivering an old-fashioned fairy tale of unexpected love (and even a dose of social critique), Mona Achache’s helming debut unashamedly has it all ways. But the result is a basically touching, engaging parable about the importance of unconventionality that did solid B.O. in France this summer. Offshore sales have been brisk.

Bright, sullen and occasionally just irritating, Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic) has observed that adults live absurd, hemmed-in lives, and so has decided to commit suicide on her 12th birthday to avoid the same fate. Using her dad’s old Hi-8, Paloma shoots endless videos of her family hysterical mother Solange (Anne Brochet), preoccupied father Paul (Wladimir Yordanoff) and snooty sis Colombe (Sarah Lepicard). As she does, she delivers acid philosophical observations about the similarities between psychoanalysis and religion that belie her young age.

Ultra-frumpy concierge Renee (Josiane Balasko), living in the same building, is later revealed to be the “hedgehog” of the title — spiky on the outside, elegant on the inside. A closet intellectual, Renee has a small library of which none of the neighbors are aware.

When sophisticated, wealthy Japanese widower Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa) moves in following the death of a neighbor, he immediately detects Renee’s cultured side. Before too long, he’s giving her bound copies of Tolstoy and inviting her to watch Yasujiro Ozu’s 1950 “The Munekata Sisters.”

The barriers fall on all sides, with Renee and Paloma finding a friendship — and in Renee’s case, love — they didn’t

know they had. The unexpected final movement is either adventurous or lazy, depending on how you look at it, but it does dovetail pleasingly with the title.

In Barbery’s novel, Renee and Paloma alternate as narrators. The film achieves a similar effect by having the audience see what Paloma views through her vidcam, a technique that becomes a little wearisome later on. Pic is attentive to nuance, sometimes delightfully so, but also has a self-regarding preciousness that it sometimes tries to puncture with forced, uncharacteristic vulgarity.

Perfs are strong, with Balasko in particular suggesting a wealth of simmering emotion beneath her impassive features. “The Hedgehog” mostly takes place in the somberly lit apartment block; in enjoyable counterpoint, drawings by Paloma occasionally take on a life of their own.

Gabriel Yared’s score occasionally strays too obviously into off-the-peg Gallic themes.

The Hedgehog

France

Production

A Les Films des Tournelles, Pathe, France 2 Cinema, Eagle Pictures, Topaze Bleue production, with participation of Canal Plus, Cinecinema. (International sales: Pathe, Paris.). Produced by Anne-Dominique Toussaint. Directed, written by Mona Achache, based on the novel by Muriel Barbery.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Patrick Blossier; editor, Julia Gregory; music, Gabriel Yared; art director, Yves Brover; sound (Dolby/DTS), Jean-Pierre Duret, Arnaud Rolland, Nicolas Naegelen. Reviewed at Cine Princesa, Madrid, Dec. 5, 2009. (In Cairo, Dubai film festivals.) Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Josiane Balasko, Garance Le Guillermic, Togo Igawa, Anne Brochet, Ariane Ascaride, Wladimir Yordanoff, Sarah Lepicard.

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