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.



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

Yasujiro Ozu and The Art of Aloneness

Growing up in Hong Kong during the 60’s, I had my share of Japanese literature and films, as well, the early version of anime.  Books were in Chinese translations, films with Chinese subtitles, and anime needed no language.  As a youngster I had my fix of Samurai action flicks by the legendary Akira Kurosawa, or the early sagas of The Blind Swordsman deftly performed by Shintarô Katsu.  The fast, magical sword-fighting movements displayed in elegantly choreographed sequences defined what ‘cool’ was in the eyes of a very young film lover, decades before Jason Bourne emerged.

But I admit, I had never heard of Yasujiro Ozu (小津 安二郎, 1903-1963) before reading the book The Elegance of The Hedgehog, and since, have become a mesmerized Ozu fan.

In Muriel Barbery’s marvellous work of fiction The Elegance of The Hedgehog, I was fascinated by the following excerpt that led me to explore the world of Ozu. Barbery mentioned some dialogues in the Ozu film ‘The Munekata Sisters’ (1950). Here, after quoting elder sister Setsuko, Barbery wraps up the chapter from the point of view of the concierge Renée, narrator of the book:

True novelty is that which does not grow old, despite the passage of time.

The camellia against the moss of the temple, the violet hues of the Kyoto mountains, a blue porcelain cup — this sudden flowering of pure beauty at the heart of ephemeral passion: is this not something we all aspire to?  And something that, in our Western civilization, we do not know how to attain?

The contemplation of eternity within the very movement of life.

I could not find any copy of ‘The Munekata Sisters’, but I did manage to find a few other Ozu films on DVD in The Criterion Collection at an independent video store. One particularly stands out, both the film and the special features.  And that’s Tokyo Story (1953), the best known and most acclaimed Ozu work.


TOKYO STORY (with spoiler)



Instead of the macho samurai films of his time, Ozu chose to explore the quiet subject of family relationships, parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, and from them come the topics of marriage, loyalty, aging, death, filial duties, parental expectations, and generational conflicts.  Through his perceptive camera work, Ozu sensitively revealed the undercurrents beneath the seemingly calm surface of daily family interactions.

‘Tokyo Story’ is about an aging couple Shukichi (the Ozu actor Chishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) from small town Onomichi going on a trip to visit their adult children in bustling Tokyo.  At that time, postwar Japan was cranking up her economic engine, and urbanization was taking off.  Shukichi and Tomi’s children were all busily engaged in their work and family, with no time or patience to entertain their visiting parents, albeit struggling with a thin sense of obligation. They passed the two old folks from home to home, and finally sent them off to a spa resort on their own, a supposedly well-meant package substituting for their absentee hospitality.

With his subtle cinematic language, Ozu explored the issues facing the family in urban, postwar Japan. I’m surprised that in a time when the rebuilding of national pride was as much an essential as that of the economy,  Ozu was brave enough to depict the collapse of the family, revealing the conflicts and tensions behind the amicable social façade.  It’s interesting how contemporary and universal they are.  Have we not heard of those ubiquitous ‘mother-in-law jokes’ in our modern Western society?  Or, in real life, do we not struggle between taking care of our own family and career, and finding the time and energy to look after our aging parents?


But the contemplative cinematic offerings of Ozu draw us into deeper thoughts. ‘Tokyo Story’ quietly depicts the truth of these issues: No matter how many siblings there are in a family, each person is responsible for his or her own decision and action.  Even in a mass society like Japan, one can still make individual choices. Despite the currents, one can stand alone against the tides, and act according to one’s heart and conviction. While the brothers and sister are evading the task of hospitality, the young widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (the Ozu actress Setsuko Hara) chooses to care for her deceased husband’s parents out of genuine love.  She stands alone in her kindness and grace, a selfless heroine in a family hinged upon superficial ties.

Illness and death too have to be borne alone.  Despite their being together all the years of their marriage, Shukichi and Tomi each has to face the imminent all alone.  After Tomi falls ill upon arriving home from Tokyo, the strong bond of togetherness in marriage quickly dissolves into helpless resignation of parting and letting go.  Shukichi soon realizes he has to face life all alone.  The poignant scene though is that despite his loss, he looks out for his daughter-in-law Noriko, appreciating her loyalty, and relieving her of further obligations.  Despite having no blood ties, the two of them have touched each other in a way that’s beyond flesh and blood. Noriko selflessly gives while Shukichi accepts and appreciates in the midst of aloneness. The tables are turned, while they are left to face life alone, they are yet bound together in an unspoken bond, one that’s far stronger than filial ties.

The Criterion Collection carries several sets of Ozu titles.  ‘Tokyo Story’ is one in a trilogy of Noriko’s stories.  Disc Two features ‘I Lived, But…’,  a two-hour documentary on the life of Ozu, and ‘Talking with Ozu’: a 40-minute tribute to the great director featuring reflections from international auteurs Stanley Kwan, Aki Kaurismaki, Claire Denis, Lindsay Anderson, Paul Schrader, Wim Wenders, and Hou Hsiao-hsien.  It also features audio commentary by Ozu film scholar David Desser.

~~~~ Ripples

CLICK HERE to my review of another Ozu classic: Floating Weeds (1959)

Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery

Gourmet Rhapsody

Before the French publishing sensation The Elegance of the Hedgehog, there was Gourmet Rhapsody.  We in English-speaking North America were not aware of such a delicacy until after the translation of Hedgehog was introduced to us.  Too risky to sell to a different palate?

As a first novel, Gourmet Rhapsody, the 156-page collection of short chapters, is like an appetizer to the main dish that is Hedgehog.  It is a foretaste of the more meaty philosophical pondering of the latter.  Now that we have savored the main dish first,  might as well treat Gourmet Rhapsody as the dessert.  Does the cover not make you think of a raspberry sorbet?

If food is a metaphor for life, then the food critic is almost at the status of divinity, especially ‘the greatest food critic in the world’.  That self-ascribed praise is the egotistic utterance of none other than Pierre Arthens, the celeb resident on the fourth floor of the luxury apartment at 7 Rue  de Grenelle, the setting for Hedgehog.

Pierre Arthens’ pen is indeed mightier than the sword.  The knowledgeable and merciless food critic, the ‘true genius of the food world’, is feared from all corners of the world, ‘from Paris to Rio, Moscow to Brazzaville, Saigon to Melbourne and Acapulco’.  He holds the power to exalt a chef and restaurateur to stardom or crush their ego and future like eggshells.

Between these two extremes — the rich warmth of a daube and the clean crystal of shellfish, I have covered the entire range of culinary art, for I am an encyclopedic esthete who is always one dish ahead of the game — but always one heart behind.

But what use is the allure of fame and power when one is on deathbed, at 68, given only 48 hours to live.  Alas, from the years of Epicurean pursuits of cream and butter, oil and sauces, games and other culinary delights, the world renowned food critic is dying not from liver or stomach ailments, but cardiac failure.

Gourmet Rhapsody is a collection of Arthens’ own reminiscence of a life with food and his final quest.  The vividly evoked memories are interspersed with poignant commentaries by those who have come into the path of his life, including his wife, children, nephew, granddaughter, restaurateurs, his doctor, his concierge, his mistress, and even his cat.

And alas, what pity it is to find that none of the entries from these people is positive.  His daughter Laura stays in the stairway, refuses to go into his room to see his last.  His son loathes his ego and his ruthless destruction of theirs.  His wife Anna, whom he had loved as an object of possession, is ever more ambivalent at his deathbed.

And what irony, the only positive review of his life comes from his cat Rick:

… here I am, nineteen years I’ve knocked about as head tomcat on the Persian rugs of my abode;  just me, the favorite, the master’s alter ego, the one and only, to whom he declared his thoughtful, undying love…

So, what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses the love from his wife and children, or respect from those who have crossed his path?  This ultimate question belies the enticing and delicious offering described throughout the chapters.  As in Hedgehog, Barbery has cleverly created a philosophical concoction without appearing didactic.  Here in Gourmet Rhapsody, food is the delightful sauce bringing up the taste of such rumination.

As a lover of sushi and sashimi, my favorite chapter is ‘Raw’, in which Arthens reminisce on his first taste of these Japanese culinary delights:

It was dazzling… True sashimi is not so much bitten into as allowed to melt on the tongue.  It calls for slow, supple chewing, not to bring about a change in the nature of the food but merely to allow one to savor its airy, satiny texture… sashimi is velvet dust, verging on silk, or a bit of both, and the extraordinary alchemy of its gossamer essence allows it to preserve a milky density unknown even by clouds.

But the powerful food critic has but one final quest on his deathbed.  There is one particular food that he wants to taste most before his imminent demise, but which he fails to name.  No, not the coq au vin, or the extravagant pots-au-feu, or poulets chasseur, or the grilled meat of Tangiers, or the Moroccan kesra, or the velvety, melt-in-your-tongue sashimi.  Should I reveal it here?  Alright, Spoiler Alert.

It is the chouquettes, cream puffs, but not from fancy patisserie.  Pierre Arthens wants to taste those chouquettes that are stuffed in plastic bags from the supermarket.  After a life of bourgeois elegance and Epicurean odyssey, it is the mundane, ordinary thing that Arthens seeks on his deathbed.  In the face of mortality, every single moment of mundaneness is something to devour.

If only he had savored that sooner, not just food, but the people in his life, and everything else.

~ ~ ~Ripples

Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson, Europa Editions, 2009.  156 pages.         

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


The Elegance of the Hedgehog

To read my Movie Review of The Hedgehog (Le Hérisson, 2009), CLICK HERE.

It’s all about seeing and being seen.


Hailed as the French publishing phenomenon in recent years, The Elegance of the Hedgehog has maintained 102 weeks straight on France’s best seller lists since its publication in 2006, and sold over 1 million hardback copies in 2007.

Author Muriel Barbery has created an intellectual delicacy for us to savor.   She is a former philosophy teacher in France and is now living in Japan.   Only in France you may say, where philosophy is still a compulsory subject in schools.  But no, it’s an international sensation reaching as far as South Korea, translated into half a dozen languages, sold its film rights, and garnered several literary awards.  The ripples finally reached North America last September… why so late?

This modern tale takes place in a luxury apartment at 7 rue de Grenelle, a prestigious address in Paris.  Its eight exclusive units are home to the upper echelon of French society, the elite in politics, finance, lifestyle and education.

Renée Michel knows too well what this is like… she lives here, in the quarter especially meant for her, the concierge.   For twenty-seven years she has served the residents well.   She knows how to keep her job.  Although in her mind, she thinks of them as  “a class that reproduces itself solely by means of virtuous and proper hiccups”, she keeps her thoughts very private, sharing only with her friend Manuela, the cleaning maid.

Renée’s self description may say just about what other people see on the outside, if they even care to look at her:

I am fifty-four years old… I am a widow, I am short, ugly, and plump, I have bunions on my feet and… I have always been poor, discreet, and insignificant.  I live alone with my cat…

For some reasons, these words attracted me to buy and read this book in the first place.  Herein lies the excitement.   The reader soon discovers that Renée is an autodidact.  A devoted library user, she studies on her own, philosophy, literature, history, art, semantics,  Japanese culture…  She avidly reads Kant, Proust, and Husserl after work,  contemplates phenomenology during work, and considers it not worth her while at either.  She names her cat Leo after her favorite writer Tolstoy.  On top of her eclectic reading, she listens to Mozart, Mahler, and Eminem.  She is a fan of the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu whose works formed the classics of Japanese cinema.  And she loves Vermeer.

To survive in the social pecking order, Renée has learned to be clandestine.

Cut to Paloma Josse who lives on the fifth floor.  She is the 12 year-old daughter of a parliamentarian and his wife, who holds a Ph. D in literature.  Paloma’s older sister is a graduate student of philosophy.   But within this cocoon of sheltered upper-class family, Paloma might well be the most lucid of them all.   Her preoccupation is with the search beyond the status quo, the quest for meaning in this whole idea called life.  Among her many profound thoughts is this one:

People aim for the stars, and they end up like goldfish in a bowl.

Alas, she concludes in her 12 year-old mind, albeit being a precocious savant, that there isn’t much for her to stay on.  To escape her fate in the fish bowl, she is contemplating committing suicide on her 13th birthday coming up in a few months.

The book alternates between the ruminations of Renée and Paloma. Their sharp commentaries present some incisive, and at times, hilarious social satires.  Their personal reflections are perceptive and poignant.

Within the confines of the luxury abode, all seems to be mundane, routine, and hierarchical.  Until one day, a new tenant moves in.  He is Kakuro Ozu.  His presence at 7 rue de Grenelle changes the lives of both Renée and Paloma in a most extraordinary way.  For the first time in their lives, they have been seen, and appreciated.

Kakuro Ozu is a Japanese gentleman in his 60’s.  From his first contact with Renée, the moment she lets the first line of Anna Karenina slip out of her tongue, Kakuro knows he has discovered a hidden treasure.  This is more than a concierge he is looking at.  No, he does not respect her more for the books she has read, but for the lucidity of her insights.

It’s all about seeking beauty in the mundane.

… like viewing a Vermeer in the hustle and bustle of the city, or listening to Bach in the subway, or watching films that evoke flashes of transcendence…. yes, we’ve all experienced those moments.

Kakuro shares with Renée the ability to notice Art in the most ordinary of life.  What does she see in Ozu’s film The Munekata Sisters?  The camellia on the moss.

True novelty is that which does not grow old, despite the passage of time.”

The camellia against the moss of the temple, the violet hues of the Kyoto mountains, a blue procelain cup — this sudden flowering of pure beauty at the heart of ephemeral passion: is this not something we all aspire to?

It’s all about beholding eternity in the temporal.

And what beauty, what fate, it is to find someone who has named his cats Kitty and Levin, from Anna Karenina, while yours is Leo, someone who appreciates the meaning behind 17th C. Dutch still-life, someone who seeks the authentic human face behind the façade of social norms… someone whose toilet, even, exuberates with Mozart’s Confutati?

And oh… what an experience in that bathroom at Kakuro’s suite.  Kudos to Alison Anderson, I’ve totally forgotten that I’m reading a translation.  Just one of the rare cases that shows humor can be translated.  And that night, how gratifying for Renée to find so much inspiration in a Dutch painting, a sliding door, a bowl of ramen noodles…

What congruence links a Claesz, a Raphael, a Rubens, and a Hopper?

Are there universals?

And 12 year-old Paloma, with her quest for meaning and authenticity, is soon confronted with something much more engrossing than she had started out to seek…

At times LOL funny, at times, absorbingly heart-breaking.  This is one of the rare occasions where I had tears welled up in my eyes as I came to the end, an ending so powerful it propelled me to start from the beginning again.

~ ~ ~½ Ripples

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson, translation published by Europa Editions, 2008, 325 pages.



If there are no universals, why would we experience such delight when someone else shares our joy in discovering that same beauty?  Why would we seek beauty in the first place?

“… He has set eternity in their heart…”  — Ecclesiastes 3: 11


To read my review of Muriel Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody, CLICK HERE.