‘The Hedgehog’ – an elegant film

French filmmaker Mona Achache deftly brings Muriel Barbery’s widely-loved novel and its two intriguing and delightfully complicated characters to life.

The hedghog film still 311 (photo credit: (Courtesy of sbpr))
The hedghog film still 311
(photo credit: (Courtesy of sbpr))
Mona Achache, the director of the film The Hedgehog (which opened throughout Israel last week), an adaptation of the international bestselling novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, says she knew it wouldn’t be easy to make a film that would measure up to the book.
But in spite of this, she decided that The Hedgehog would be her first feature film, “Because when I read the book I fell in love with the character. I fell in love with that woman hiding herself and with that girl who is so afraid to live.”
The woman is Renee, the quiet concierge of a fashionable Parisian apartment building who has educated herself in the classics and hides her brilliance from those around her, but only opens up when an elderly Japanese man moves into the building. The girl is Paloma, the 11-year-old daughter of one of the wealthy families in the building, who is completely alienated from her status- conscious parents and plans to commit suicide when she turns 12. She forms a friendship with Renee that changes her outlook on life.
“I loved their very poetic manner of talking, the characters’ curiosity about life and the difficulty the girl has with the parents. Even though it is set in a wealthy Parisian neighborhood, I found it was a completely universal story,” says Achache, who had directed short films before making this film, which stars acclaimed French actress Josiane Balasko as Renee.
How did a novice director to get the opportunity to helm such an acclaimed work of literary fiction? “When I read the book it wasn’t a success yet,” says Achache. But once she read it, she showed it to a producer she knew, Anne-Dominique Toussaint, who was impressed by her passion.
“And then it became a big bestseller. It is hard, adapting a very beloved work of literature. When you make your first film you are always stressed. When I was writing the screenplay, I was trying to forget the book in a way. You can’t make a film thinking, ‘This is going to be loved by everybody who loved the book.’ You must think: It must be loved by me. Although it is an adaptation of a book, it is my film.”
One of the ways in which Achache put her stamp on the book was to translate some of the literary conceits into more visual terms.
“It was a book that was very literary and I had to create a cinematic world for the movie. In the book, the character, Paloma, is writing, in the film, she is painting and photographing. And the building itself is like a character, it’s an elaborate building, but with darkness, an atmosphere. It was very interesting to translate the story into images.”
WORKING WITH the actors also gave depth to the story. “It was very interesting and very different with each of the actors. With the little girl, we worked a lot before shooting to create the character. We were creating mannerisms and small movements.”
But Josiane Balasko is an established actress and director, who recently starred in and directed the film Cliente.
“With Josiane, she doesn’t like to talk too much before she acts. We worked with the character’s appearance, with her clothes, style, hair and face. It became a way to talk about the interior of the character.”
Japanese actor Togo Igawa, a distinguished performer who has appeared in dozens of films (among them the Israeli film A Matter of Size), “didn’t speak French, so he had to learn his lines phonetically. But it worked.”
Achache, a mother of two children, ages six and ten, counts such films as Mary Poppins and Les Enfants du Paradis among her influences, saying, “I love films that are very poetic.”
She grew up in an artistic family: Her father was a film director and her mother is a writer. Although she started out wanting to act, when she got a chance to direct a short project while studying acting, she knew, “that’s all I want to do.”
Only her older child has seen the movie, says Achache, “because I wanted her to see this young actress, Garance Le Guillermic, who I was spending so much time with. My daughter is also named Garance and I wanted her to see what we did. It was a bit bizarre for her, seeing this girl who says she wants to die in the movie. But she did tell me afterwards, ‘Yes, it was good, but it was a bit boring.’ And we laughed about that.”