Directed by Mona Achache
Starring Josiane Balasko, Garance Le Guillermic, Togo Igawa, Anne Brochet and Ariane Ascaride
Released in the UK on 2 September
Bits and pieces of information, remembered from I don’t know where or when, came to me as I was watching The Hedgehog, a film made from Muriel Barbery’s 2006 Japonisme novel: Jacques Chirac visited Japan at least 40 times, more than any other world leader; Paris hosts the Maison de la culture du Japon; and the great ukiyo-e prints of Hokusai and Utamaro helped to shape the grammar of the major French Impressionists.
Barbery’s phenomenally successful book - 2.5 million copies sold worldwide - is an addition to a strand of French culture saturated with Japonisme; and like so much else in that strand, The Elegance of the Hedgehog’s love of that country cannot be separated from a bourgeois distaste for French bourgeois life. It somehow seems right that Barbery now lives in Japan.
The novel on which the film is based is set in a single apartment block in Paris and has two beating hearts: one is Paloma, a self-conscious 11-year-old girl who looks at the future plotted for her in her bourgeois family and says that rather than enter the fishbowl she will end her own life on her 12th birthday; the other is Renée, a self-declared fat, ugly and old - and poor - concierge who looks after the luxury block in which the girl lives and who has an intellectual life she keeps secret from the bourgeois tenants. She is the hedgehog, prickly on the outside but “refined” and terribly “elegant” on the inside. She reads Marx “to elevate her mind”, calls her cat Leo after Tolstoy, and has a hidden library of books.
What brings together Paloma and Renée is Japan in the form of a new tenant in the block, the elegant and wealthy Mr Ozu. We discover that Paloma is learning Japanese, that Renee has a thing for Japanese cinema - she asks the new tenant if he is related to the great Japanese director - he isn’t; that Japanese food is better than French, that manga is a powerful form of literature, and so on. The Japan connection is met on every other page.
The novel is told from both Renée’s and Paloma’s points of view; and the challenge for any film is to find an idiom that will respect its dual points of view, its interiority and its fascination with culture, from Marx to The Hunt for the Red October (the Sean Connery film, for those who haven’t seen it).
Something is always lost and, if we are lucky, found in translation (think Verdi and Shakespeare); and Mona Achache’s film inevitably makes sacrifices. The dual point of view is abandoned - it is Paloma’s voice we hear - and the novel’s constant meditations on art and beauty are pruned drastically. What the film does is explore what happens to a young girl and an older woman when they hide not only from others but also from themselves.
This is a film full of mirrors, of curtains being opened and closed, of looking, hiding and being looked at. For much of the film, Paloma, à la L.B. Jeffries in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, hides behind a video camera that allows her not only to record the awful bourgeois life of her family but also to keep all life at a distance.
Renée hides, too, from herself as much as others. In one of the most affecting moments, the concierge, played splendidly by Josiane Balasko, goes to the hairdresser after receiving an invitation to dinner from Mr Ozu. Her terminally unkempt hair is cut and we watch her as she refuses to raise her coiffured head in front of the mirror, to encounter herself.
The strength of the film, like the novel, is the way it packages a certain idea of Frenchness, as Four Weddings and a Funeral packaged a certain form of Englishness. Both book and film flatter the audience with what they already know: the Parisian concierge (think Zola’s Nana), the alienated and wise child (à la Rousseau), the French apartment block with its wrought-iron lift; the psychoanalytically challenged Parisian mother; the references to Tolstoy and others; and above all the genuflection to the wisdom of the East.
Both novel and film go down without pain. But both are smug, confident that their “refinement” and “aristocratic” taste are sans pareil, that those who do not know that The Munekata Sisters is an Ozu film are beyond redemption. Once French engagement with Japan was a way of engaging with modernity; in the film and Barbery’s novel it is a form of retreat.