Its themes, which include the preciousness of friendship, are hardly novel, and as it moves from serio-quirky to melodramatic, its tonal inconsistencies can be frustrating. But when “The Hedgehog” focuses, as it often does, on the emotional life of its strongest character, this intimate dramedy is lovely and captivating.
You’ll have to shift your receptor settings to French and eccentric in order to appreciate this feature debut from writer-director Mona Achache, which is “freely inspired” by the similarly titled novel by Muriel Barbery.
The story suggests a Gallic splicing of “Harold and Maude” and the human-connection films of Tom McCarthy (“Win Win”).
The setting is a Parisian apartment building filled with emotionally isolated residents and tellingly named cats.
Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic), the 11-year-old narrator, prowls the premises with a videocamera, filming what she deems bourgeois hypocrisies.
To escape a “fishbowl” future, Paloma plans to commit suicide on her 12th birthday. To that end, she’s stocking up on pills pilfered from her depressed mother (Anne Brochet).
Paloma finds uplifting companionship in Renee Michel (Josiane Balasko), the building’s 54-year-old concierge. Deliberately personifying the image of a concierge as an unsociable lowbrow, Renee, the quick-to-judge Paloma learns, is, in fact, a cultured woman with a roomful of books and a passion for literature.
Meaningful friendship also happens with Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa), a wealthy and refined new tenant who plays Go with Paloma and clicks with Renee over a Tolstoy quote.
Soon he’s cooking Japanese food for Renee and treating her to a private screening of a film by his famous namesake. Their courtship enlivens Renee, who begins sporting a new wardrobe and radiating an inner glow.
You won’t find much of a story or any deep ideas here. The class differences separating Renee and Kakuro, and the depression of Paloma, are treated only lightly. A late-inning shocker feels like it belongs in a heavier movie. Paloma’s precociousness defies credibility.
But Achache fares delectably when exploring private wavelengths and intimate spaces, and her presentation of Renee’s blooming enables the movie to frequently sparkle and ultimately stick with us.
Portrayed by Balasko (“French Twist”) with nuance, grace, intelligence and humor, Renee is a quietly terrific portrait of a deserving, dynamic woman who has long gone unnoticed. The sight of her in her hidden space, reading Tolstoy to her cat, Leo, is at once poignant and delightful. Even a stock moment in which she examines her visage in the mirror is stirring.
The title comes from Paloma’s description of Renee as a hedgehog _ prickly on the outside and refined underneath. Animated sequences accompanying Paloma’s ink drawings whimsically bring to life this idea.
Starring Josiane Balasko, Garance Le Guillermic, Togo Igawa, Anne Brochet
Written and directed by Mona Achache
Running time 1 hour 38 minutes