The Hedgehog: Movie Review (Le Hérisson, 2009, DVD)

To read my book review of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, CLICK HERE.

I’m sure it must be a major challenge to turn Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog into a movie.  I admire director/screenwriter Mona Achache’s courage.  She has taken up a tall order to make her full feature directorial debut.  How do you deal with all the ubiquitous internal dialogues, philosophical ruminations, literary allusions, and turn the story that takes place inside a Paris apartment into a full length film, holding viewers’ attention for 100 minutes?  Overall, Achache has done well on a formidable task… including building the set, the whole luxury apartment façade from scratch, from the workable old-style elevator to the cast iron gate in the front entrance.

But, maybe that’s the easy part.

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In the film, we look at things from 11 years-old Paloma’s point of view, for she is constantly video-taping the people and the happenings both in her own suite and those in her apartment building.  She intends to produce some sort of a visual philosophical treatise, her legacy, as she plans to take her own life on her 12th birthday.  This is a clever alteration, shooting video instead of writing a journal, for the visual effects.   We see a very intelligent girl (Garance le Guillermic), having concluded that life is utterly absurd, decides not to spend her life in a fishbowl as everyone else. With her artistic talents, Paloma has used her drawings as a kind of personal record-keeping; from her point of view, some delightful animations are added to enhance the appeal of the film. Paloma is an interesting and amiable character that ironically brightens up the film with some humorous deadpan takes.

The movie is an abridged and simplified version of the book, that is expected.  But while it has some stylish manoeuvring in presenting the story, I’m disappointed that the crux of the premise has not been focused upon. My major concern then, must turn to the other character.  The main speaker of the book is Madame Michel, Renée, the 54 year-old autodidact, the concierge of the luxury apartment.  Yes, we see her outward appearance following exactly what the book has described:

I am a widow, I am short, ugly, and plump… I live alone with my cat, a big, lazy tom… neither he nor I make any effort to take part in the social doings of our respective species.  Because I am rarely friendly–though always polite–I am not liked, but am tolerated nonetheless…

Well, maybe not the ‘ugly’ part.  But yes, we see the Hedgehog alright, but what about its elegance?

Josiane Balasko has put on a meticulous performance as Madame Michel, a bit too much even, for her grumpy persona has hidden all humor the character could have diffused, as the book has rendered.  But other than the faithful characterization on the surface, it is more important that the inner world, the clandestine and ignored persona of Renée be depicted.  What makes the book so appealing is Renée’s inner quest, not only for intellectual ideals (yes we see her reading and her secret library in the film), but her appreciation of art as a form of transcendence, her search for beauty in the mundane, her ability to seize the moment of permanence in the temporal, as Barbery has written: “pure beauty at the heart of ephemeral passion”.  It is such wisdom that Paloma finally realizes, and which changes her mind about suicide.  This crucial theme is not shown in the movie, and I count that as a major deficit, despite the conscientious effort in following the outward details of the book.

Director Achache, who has also written the screenplay, chooses to replace these gratifying thoughts with the cliché statement of  “It’s what you’re doing the moment you die that’s important.”  Well, ok… maybe she’d like to write a book with that premise, but I’m afraid it might not be the essence of the source material here.

Yes, we still have the new tenant Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa), who has wisely looked past the ordinary façade of a socially lower-ranked concierge, and chooses to embark on a romantic journey with his new-found friend.  And yes, we have the chance to see his newly renovated Japanese suite, even his Mozart-playing toilet, as well as an excerpt from the Japanese director Ozu‘s The Munekata Sisters. Achache has followed the particulars faithfully. I wish she had had explored the essence, transporting her viewers from the mundane to a transcendent plane, albeit just momentarily.

I must add though, the music has come through most effectively.  Thanks to Gabriel Yared, whatever that is missing has been displayed musically by the meditative tunes and the longing voice of the cello.  The Oscar winning composer has created such memorable scores for The English Patient (1996), which won him an Oscar, and nominations for Cold Mountain (2003), and The Talented Mr. Rippley (1999).  Here in The Hedgehog, his musical rendering is beauty itself.

The DVD is in French with English subtitles.  Special features include the making of and deleted scenes. Unfortunately, they are all in French with no subtitles.  While watching the luxury apartment building being set up from scratch is interesting,  without subtitles, the comments from the director and actors in the making of featurette cannot be appreciated as they should be.

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

12 thoughts on “The Hedgehog: Movie Review (Le Hérisson, 2009, DVD)”

  1. Arti, I am going to forego reading this movie review for the moment and go read your book review of this book again. Inge has been talking about this book on and off for a few weeks now, and I really think it’s time I read it. I want to remind myself what you said about it.

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  2. I think, if you don’t mind, that I will stick with the book…
    Excellent review, Arti.

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    ds,

    Well at least now I can engage in discussions and legitimately write a review. I know some critics are quite fond of it. But for intellectual gratification and enjoyment, like you… I’d stick with the book.

    Arti

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  3. This truly is a question, from someone who knows almost nothing about film theory, script writing, and so on…

    Is it possible that, no matter how well or poorly the job is done, there are some books that simply don’t make the transition from print to film with their essence intact?

    I’m especially struck by the difference in feeling between the book’s cover and the film poster. They seem to be pointing to two stories, not one, and the book’s cover seems to convey the richness of the story in a way the poster doesn’t.

    This is a curiosity to me, and I know what it means. I’m going to have to read the book (which I now have!) and see the film, too.

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    1. Linda,

      I don’t pretend to be an expert, let’s say just an aficionado and always a learner. Your very good question deserves some expert opinion. But, without generalizing, allow me to just share some personal thoughts.

      First off, please don’t misunderstand me about the film here, it’s not a bad movie. My major concern is just that it has not conveyed an essential idea in the book and that’s seeing the permanence in the temporal, and as 12 year-old Paloma says in the end of the book “an always within never”. I think the filmmaker could have focused more on that beauty-in-the-mundane notion, which can be visually explored through cinematography, and portraying more elegance in the internal world of the hedgehog. As I’ve mentioned in the post, the film’s music has done just that, conveying the sense of beauty and longing.

      But of course, every director and screenwriter has his/her own take on a book (it’s our Roland Barthes again!). Seems that Achache has chosen to take a light and whimsical frame to present the work, which is fine. It’s just again, the notion I thought is emphasized throughout by Barbery is missing in the film, instead, substituting with “at least she dies doing what she loves” kind of cliché.

      I think ideas, even philosophical ideas, can be transported to a visual plane, as many films have shown. And that, of course, is what I’m constantly striving to learn to do. Thanks for stirring up the ripples!

      Arti

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  4. Hmmm…I was contemplating watching the movie given that I just finished reading the book but after your review I’ll probably give it a miss. I don’t like it when the movie changes a lot from a book and especially something as poignant as the message. Great review…

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    Psych Babbler,

    Welcome. But don’t let me dissuade you. If you’re interested still, see the movie. I’d like to hear your views about it. Come back and drop us a line. 😉

    Arti

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  5. I saw this movie last year in Belgium on dvd and loved it. Particularly the Josiane Balasko performance—–and of course the astonishing Garance le Guillermic as Paloma—-all completely unsentimental and direct. Everyone I saw it with had read the novel, so I alone appreciated it as only a movie. I have yet to read the book, but I will. And all that I know who have both read and seen said movie—–love it. No complaints have I heard till now, reading this.
    dtj

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    david,

    Yes, definitely read the book… and I have a feeling that you’ll enjoy it even more. I understand it’s about choices when making a movie adaptation, ie, which parts to keep, which to forego. As I mentioned in my review, the essence of the parts that they have left out in the film made up the very reasons why I liked the book. I can think of another case like this and that’s W. S. Maugham’s The Painted Veil. I thought the book excellent, with many quotable lines. And yet, the film has left out all that I’d appreciated (and underlined, mind you) in the book.

    Anyway, any piece of art appeals to us in a particular and personal way. I’ve appreciated your candid sharing of your opinion on several of my reviews here on Ripple Effects. Hope to hear from you again!

    Arti

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  6. Hello, thoughts on films that are “based” on novels.
    The following are obvious statements, but still true and pertinent.

    The film is not the book (and does not have to be).
    Concepts / constructs / melodies (sort to speak) etc are not always appropriate for both formats.
    An author may inspire a director so they and their creation/s become muses.
    ….

    I am engrossed in the world of cinema and as a result I do not read much fiction (if I do it’s nearly always classical) so I have not read this particular book, nor have I seen the film yet, but I am compelled to comment on the review. I majored in Book Arts and so I am aware of how important time, space and the physical are to the reader of a book, it is a unique experience that I doubt can be truly reproduced in other art forms. Consequently with an appreciation for both books and film I am sympathetic to those who watch films based on books that they love and walk away disappointed, still I find it a little off putting that appreciation of a thing for what it is as apposed to what it isn’t is still so common in art reviews, but most specifically in this case films that are based in part or in whole on novels. Possibly I am forgetting the complexities of the Journalistic / Critical world and the not so obvious (but suspect) motivations within, but I think it’s a little naive, or possibly stubborn would be a better description, to make the bulk of a review comparative. In a broad “review of reviews” I would say, look at the thing for what it is most primarily, (in this case a film) and then by all means feel free to compare. I think that’s reasonable. And just so I don’t come off too pragmatic and fair I’d like to say I prefer a review to be 85% what the thing is and 10% where it came from (possibly even where it’s going) and then just to be prickly 5% what it isn’t.

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    1. Amy,

      Welcome! Thank you for your thorough and thoughtful response to my review.

      I totally agree with you that the film is not the book, they are two different art forms, as I have elaborated in a more recent post here.

      Having said that, I’m sure you’ll agree too, that there’s no ‘neutral’ review. While a review should judge a work on its own merits in the context of its form, a reviewer who has experienced both the book and the film would naturally think of each not as totally different entities. Comparative appreciation is the privilege of those who have encountered and gained a personal experience with both works. I admit I might have taken the movie and juxtaposed it a bit too closely with its source material. This could well be because it is with the book that I’d had the deeper resonance, as Muriel Barbery has eloquently brought to the forefront the notion of finding beauty in the mundane, and capturing eternity in the temporal. That sense of gratification I did not experience while watching the movie.

      It is precisely the point, ironically, that I found the movie has taken too many elements of the book literally in translating them into the visual, while neglecting what I think are some important thematic elements from the book. But you know, I’m sure in this case, I’d appreciate the movie much more if I had not read the excellent work of Muriel Barbery. 😉

      Again, I thank you for taking the time to respond. Hope to hear from you again!

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  7. The movie was just shown in Bethesda Maryland to an audiance of older people. The manager of the theater actually came and said she hoped we would enjoy the film. I have to think this was a special showing in some way directed to a club or organization.

    Because I go to the movies at least twice a week I have been reduced to Hollywood car chases, explosions and sex for entertainment. So Hedgehog was a delight to me. I had not expected to be as moved by it as I was. Have not read the book so didn’t have the idea of the movie not being faithful. It was one of the finest crafted films that I have seen in a long time. The oriental gentleman was odd I thought and his demeaner was so centain that I was put off a bit. The parents and sister were stuges and did not contribute much to the sensitive nature of the two main characters. I strongly identified with the young girl and could readily understand her need to seek out someone beside her Mother as an emotional companion. God bless the author of the book and the director and author of the movie for giving me such an enjoyable look back at my own childhood. Ann

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    1. Ann,

      Welcome and thanks for leaving your comment. Yes this is definitely an alternative to the usual Hollywood movies we see nowadays. I’m amazed that you can find two films to watch every week. I agree with you about the products we’re getting have all but numbed our senses and subconsciously, lowered our expectations.

      As for this film, I feel too that the supporting characters in the background as you mentioned, the mother and the sister of Paloma, are more like caricatures. Well, we can take them as comic relief… But I’m glad you enjoy the two main characters and that the film has brought back fond memories for you. That’s the mesmerizing power of films.

      About the ‘faithfulness’ of film adaptations, as I wrote in a post addressing this issue, I’m not so much as comparing whether the film is true to the book or not, but I do compare though my own enjoyment of each, and what I glean from my encounter with them. You may be interested to take a look at that post. And as a film lover, you might like to contribute your input. As for Hedgehog, I highly recommend you read the book. It’s as unique, if not more, as the film.

      Again, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

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  8. I very much enjoy your thoughtful reviews and your considerate responses to excellent comments. I will look for this movie and see what happens. Thank you so much.

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