Uncurling The Hedgehog: An Interview with Mona Achache (Web Exclusive)
by Dennis West and Joan M. West
French director Mona Achache’s debut feature cannot be discussed without some reference to its source—Muriel Barbery’s stunningly successful 2006 novel, which was released with no fanfare, yet sold more than a million copies in French before the end of that year and was eventually translated into thirty-some languages. The novel’s fans are legion. A word of caution to these fans, then, before they see the film—The Hedgehog is not The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Although substantially inspired by its source, much has (of necessity) been left behind or altered in the transformation from one artistic form to the other, with an equally engaging result. Achache succeeds admirably in maintaining the novel’s essence—its humanity, its poetry, its humor, even its darker side.
Achache, who also wrote the script, concentrates on creating a tight character-based story, snappily cross-cutting between the overlapping, intersecting lives of two individuals at odds with society and life in general. Renée Michel (Josiane Balasko), fifty-four, and Paloma Josse (Garance Le Guillermic), eleven, differ vastly in age but share in common the trait of a fiercely maintained loneliness. The setting is somewhat claustrophobic: an upscale Parisian Art Nouveau apartment building, which Paloma views as a sort of giant bourgeois fishbowl whose transparent walls constantly constrain the residents’ lives and potential.
Essentially invisible to the residents, Renée serves as the dwelling’s humble concierge. Ashamed of her physical appearance, her lower-class origins, and her lack of formal education, she has willfully adopted the mask of the stereotypically uncultured, uncouth French concierge. Yet, as the film’s title suggests, Renée’s prickly exterior belies a very different and vulnerable underside. With the world held at bay, Renée takes refuge in her hidden library. There her cat Leo (after Tolstoy) drowses in her lap as she savors In Praise of Shadows, Junichiro Tanizaki’s philosophical treatise on Japanese esthetics, along with nibbles of exquisite dark chocolate. Here she feels safe from her worst fear—falling victim to class prejudices that judge an individual’s merit on the basis of exterior factors. What she does not see, sadly, is that her limitations are self-inflicted by the stereotyping gaze she herself directs at her own circumstances.
Although she too hides (behind her camera), Paloma, youngest daughter of rich, liberal-minded tenants in the building, is anything but invisible, constantly popping up and annoyingly sticking her camcorder in everyone’s face. She is hyperarticulate, hypercreative, hyperintelligent, and a very lonely, friendless child. Having decided that being an adult means living in a fishbowl surrounded by bourgeois banality, she has resolved to escape her aquatic destiny by committing suicide on her twelfth birthday. Until that day, she is keeping various diaries of observations—filmed and rendered in drawings—to see if she can discover a reason to live. Her filmed journal, with its accompanying voice-over narrative, offers a highly effective entrance into her world-view and serves as well to introduce other inhabitants of the building. Paloma’s problems can largely be traced to the fact that, for all her astute, even adult perceptions, she is still a child with little practical or emotional experience. She has only begun to understand that between life and death there is fluidity and nuance.
Observing both characters from the exterior, through their problematic antisocial behavior, viewers may well conclude that, in fact, there are two hedgehogs—two prickly personalities—in this story. Indeed, Renée and Paloma seem sister souls, a mother and daughter in spirit if not blood. Their eventual ability to help each other uncurl towards a clearer vision of self, to shed a few bristly attitudes and perceptions, to become more open and less judgmental towards life—a process that is the point of this fablelike story—is significantly advanced by the refreshing presence of Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa). This courtly, white-haired Japanese gentleman is a widower and a new tenant in the building, and he possesses a very different view of the world than that represented in the French assumptions that have molded Renée and Paloma.
In Barbery’s novel a great part of the concierge’s elegance is created verbally (albeit in the form of interior monologue). The sophisticated language—impressively rich vocabulary, virtuoso use of uncommon and difficult to handle verb tenses—which Renée utilizes to express her inner intellectual musings reveals her concealed personality. In the film this intellectual and linguistic elegance has been transposed into the gestural eloquence of actress Josiane Balasko. Viewers must now approach Renée’s character from her feigned and relatively silent exterior and follow closely any tentative clues offered in order to finally discover the vulnerable human being beneath. Balasko, excellent thespian that she is, successfully carries her character by the force of her corporal attitudes, most especially her facial expressions, from her deadpan quasiglowers to the fleeting smiles that occasionally replace them. Expressively spot-on, Garance Le Guillermic plays Paloma with earnest intensity, her wire-rimmed glasses now suggesting adult labors as she pushes them to the top of her head to film, but then exposing the child behind them as she struggles to extract the eyeglasses from the unruly tangle of her blonde curls. This young actress incarnates perfectly the seemingly self-assured, precocious child whose maddening behavior is really a plea for serious adult responses to her queries.
Achache has softened the pointed barbs of social criticism contained in her source by attenuating the “Frenchness” of the characters and situations and infusing them with traits that are universally applicable. A generous dollop of gentle humor adds palatability. The conversational inanities of a bourgeois dinner party emerge as more amusing than vicious or Buñuelian, as do the class differences dissected from the help’s point of view. We react to the dysfunction of Paloma’s family—her mother’s conversing with plants instead of with her daughters, her government official father’s harried distraction with work issues—with knowing smiles of recognition, not condemnatory scowls of disapproval. This is, after all, a world more of fable than of gritty reality.
By film’s end, Renée and Paloma have each reached a new, broader appreciation of what living in the fishbowl of life can mean. Both have come to realize that it is all right to reach out to another human being, whether asking for help or offering solace. Life is a conversation, not a monologue. With M. Ozu’s encouragement, Renée has let go of the self-imposed prejudices that had limited her enjoyment of life and has found people who are sincerely interested in her as herself. And, as this is a coming-of-age story, death must play a role. Given that Paloma is facing suicide, she expends considerable time trying to comprehend the link between life and death. She learns, through her first great sorrow in life, that death means no longer being able to see those you love; and, that, in the end, she must accept that living and dying retain unsolvable mysteries.
The young French filmmaker Mona Achache began her career as an assistant director, an actress, and a director of shorts, such as the award-winning Suzanne (2006). The Hedgehog is the first feature she has written and directed. The film brings together notable performances, snappy narrative pacing, strong production values, and unusual stylistic touches—such as the striking animation of Paloma’s drawings—to suggest that Achache is indeed a filmmaker to watch. Though she was a bit “under the weather” upon her arrival at the 2010 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, she nevertheless graciously agreed to discuss with Cineaste—in English and French—her opera prima.
Cineaste: What attracted you to the project of making a feature film out of this best-selling novel?
Mona Achache: The characters caught my interest, the two females: the protagonist, who loves reading and is hiding behind the appearance of a stereotypical old concierge and the little girl, very serious, very strange, who is so afraid of life that she wants to commit suicide, and how the meeting of these two females will change their lives. There is a lot of poetry in that story, and it touched me.
Cineaste: When I read the novel some time back, I thought about the question of narrative point of view. How did you decide to concentrate on the girl’s point of view, and then how did you think about the metacinematic motif of the video camera as part of the question of point of view?
Achache: In the book, there is a back and forth between Paloma’s point of view and Renée’s. In the beginning I wanted to keep that, but this was one of my first changes. In the novel Paloma writes a personal diary. For the film I had to forget the world of the book and invent something else. So I tried to use cinematic means—images, rather than words—to translate her universe and allow her to speak for herself—that is why she draws and paints and uses her camera to guide us towards a discovery of Renée. Her camera and her art were a way for me to express what I’d found in the novel, the same poetry, the same intelligence of the little girl, and to capture the very strange atmosphere in a different sort of way.
Cineaste: In comparison to the character in the novel, the Renée of the film lacks a family backstory. What has made her become the woman we see?
Achache: That was also one of my big choices. I didn’t want you to know Renée’s background—where she came from, or why she’s now in Paris as a concierge. In the novel she’s traumatized by the death of her sister. That works wonderfully in the book; but in my film I didn’t want to retain that, because we don’t have to explain Renée by a trauma. I think everybody can identify with her as a woman who is hiding herself behind appearances, like the hedgehog does. [Laughs] And I don’t need to explain that with a traumatic experience.
Cineaste: In the film Renée does not speak very much, yet in the novel’s interior monologues she expresses thoughts that are both rich and abundant. Why did you decide to keep Renée so quiet?
Achache: In the novel Renée comes to life through a transcript of her inner thoughts. I had to give up many passages in the book that I really liked, but in the end I preferred to highlight this woman’s muteness and work towards a very silent character. The décor of her living quarters and her gestures speak for her. Josiane Balasko and I worked hard on the character’s physical appearance, and in my opinion Josiane’s incredible interpretation is stronger than any explanatory dialog. The adaptation of a book shouldn’t be an exact illustration. One has to invent a new form of expression that is not carried only by words but by image or sound.
Cineaste: How did you come to the key casting decision of putting Josiane Balasko in the role of Renée? Were you influenced by any of her previous roles in particular? Perhaps playing chubby characters that are not glamorous or beautiful, as in Trop belle pour toi or Gazon maudit.
Achache: I had seen a lot of movies with Josiane; but there was no one specific role that made me choose her. When I read the novel, it was obvious to me that she was the only French actress who could play that role because she’s absolutely wonderful. For all her roles she puts her entire body into play. In America and England actors have that way of working, of using the entire body; they are not afraid of being ugly if it is good for the role. Josiane has that. When I see Josiane in The Hedgehog, even at the beginning, I think she is wonderful because she accomplishes something very difficult: she’s very dark, closed, and at the same time moving. She’s beautiful because of that; she touched me.
Cineaste: Would you please comment on Paloma’s extraordinarily adult level of sophistication? Do you find it normal for such a young child to be so fascinated with death and so seemingly set on suicide?
Achache: I believe it’s absolutely normal. I think all children are fascinated by death—but they may have different ways of expressing that fascination. You just arrive in life and then are told that you’re going to die one day. It’s the most awful thing you can hear when you are a child. And I’m sure that all children have a personal way to express their fascination with death. I was like that when I was a child. Not like Paloma—I didn’t want to kill myself. But I remember that I had a way of expressing that—I would play with odd little animals to observe how they lived and how they died.
Cineaste: You mean real animals or toys?
Achache: Just very little animals like escargots or tiny frogs. I was very young, and I wanted to observe how that little animal lived, how it could die. How is it possible to live and then just die? Some children live quite well with the idea that they are going to die one day, but a lot of children become anxious when they realize that. I think it’s normal.
Cineaste: Was the calendar Paloma draws on her wall your addition to the story? And why does her family not notice and react to it?
Achache: It wasn’t in the book. I really wanted to find a visual effect to express that she wanted to die. So for me it was a perfect visual motif to be able to enter into her head. But how can her parents envisage that it’s for dying? They can’t conceive of that because it’s just a big drawing in a room where there are lots of other drawings.
Cineaste: And it shows, of course, visually, almost literally, that her days are numbered.
Achache: Yes, but the parents can’t imagine that it’s to mark her death, so for me it was perfect. Paloma’s parents consider their daughter to be a very bizarre little girl who films, daydreams, hides, and so forth. They have not learned how to look at her art, so they don’t see that she is going to kill herself.
Cineaste: Are her parents too busy? And is this a critique of many French middle-class parents who don’t have enough time to raise their children with a lot of care and attention?
Achache: Yes, for me it is. But I didn’t want to portray an awful family, just a very high-strung one, one that is quite egocentric and suffers from lots of neuroses. And of course it’s not that they don’t love their daughter; it’s just that they don’t have time. The mother talks to the flowers; she is not talking to her daughter. And the father is talking on the telephone, not to his daughter. So yes, of course, as you said it’s a matter of sometimes not taking enough time to look at children and see what they want to say—that can seem too hard for us to do, too heavy.
Cineaste: Monsieur Ozu—this courteous and observant individual who arrives rather mysteriously from somewhere in the Far East with his so very different view of life—who is he? What does he represent? Without this character’s influence and presence the stories of Paloma and Renée would not have ended as they do. Might he be a sort of agent of redemption for them? Or an angel who brings them each a moment of grace?
Achache: I don’t particularly care for the idea of redemption. Monsieur Ozu is more like a key. The story of the film has a bit of a modern fairytale to it, and so Ozu could be its Prince Charming. There is a triangular relation among Ozu, Paloma, and Renée that deeply affects all their lives. Each one eventually reveals the other. I think, too, that what gives a character strength is that he (or she) does not have just one purpose. A strong character fits into a story like an indispensable link. So Ozu has several viable meanings.
Cineaste: What attracts Monsieur Ozu to Renée and Paloma? Is it necessary for this character to be Japanese, or at least not French, in order to break through the social and class barriers and prejudices as well as the self-imposed ones that seemingly constrain Renée?
Achache: I would hope that if Monsieur Ozu hadn’t been Japanese, the same story could have happened. But it was so lovely for me to make him a Japanese man and to imagine that he had struggled a lot in his life and seen a lot of things—to the point that he can now recognize if someone is beautiful inside even if it’s a young girl. I loved the idea that he was Japanese, but I really don’t want to say or think that only Japanese people can recognize the inner beauty of others. In fact, Renée and Paloma have that ability. They can look inside others, but they just don’t always take the time to do so, or they are afraid to because they are afraid of life. It seems to me that Renée and Paloma have the same problem—they are afraid. One hides herself, and the other wants to leave the world by committing suicide. That’s two different ways of expressing the same feeling of being afraid of life.
Cineaste: The novel’s “musical toilet” scene is quite memorable but risks becoming slapstick. Why did you decide to include it in the film?
Achache: That was a very special scene. The day of the shooting I was really nervous because I knew that it was a different kind of scene. It was to be a little joke in the film, but I was afraid that it would be difficult to integrate into the narrative. I wanted to try mixing different sorts of elements in the movie—there is poetry, there is drama, then humor, and then pure comedy with the toilet scene. It was important for me to write that scene with appropriate levels of humor—Renée laughs because everything is so ridiculous, because she’s a mere concierge hanging out with a rich Japanese guy. When she laughs, all the barriers fall down. I wanted to have an outright comedy scene so that everybody will laugh with her, but not laugh at her.
Cineaste: Well, we do, definitely! But I don’t think I’d ever heard of such a thing as a musical toilet. For me it was a big surprise that works well. Now would you talk about the animated sequences in your film, which is otherwise, stylistically speaking, a relatively realistic story?
Achache: I conceived of Paloma as being really alone, so one way for her to feel and talk was by drawing. Sometimes what she draws becomes an animation as if we are entering her thoughts. Or as if she is having a discussion with the drawing; she creates a day-to-day calendar to lead up to her suicide, for example. Drawing really is a way for her to converse, because she doesn’t have friends to do that with.
Cineaste: Paloma offers a number of humorous but caustic remarks about her family’s social class and customs.
Achache: I prefer saying difficult things with humor. The film’s story could be told very realistically, very harshly, you know, with that concierge, the differences of social class, the little child who wants to commit suicide. One could use a dark tone to recount this story. But in the book it was more like a fairy story with a lot of humor and I really wanted to keep that tone. That’s why I chose that book, why I fell in love with it—because it was really intelligent and precise, but always maintained a sense of humor and poetry.
Cineaste: Several elements of your film do suggest a certain amount of fantasy: Monsieur Ozu arrives out of nowhere and radically transforms his apartment into a remarkably non-French living space. Manuela the cleaning lady seems like a fairy godmother when she supplies Renée with a chic dress to wear to dinner with Ozu and bakes pastries for Renée to take on another date occasion. The story is ostensibly set in the present yet we don’t see objects that would positively identify the time as “now.” For instance, Paloma does not have a cellphone, as do most youngsters her age today. It all seems “timeless.” Is The Hedgehog a fairy tale?
Achache: Yes, that was what I wanted to do! And of course that’s why I chose that particular style of architecture for the apartment building, Art Nouveau. For me this building was like a fourth character of the film, and it had to have the very look you see on-screen. So I worked with the set designer, the director of photography, and the costume designer in order to conjure up a very peculiar atmosphere to envelop my characters, something appropriate for a modern fairy tale.
Cineaste: The English subtitles of the U. S. version of The Hedgehog unfortunately translate concierge as “janitor”—an infelicitous choice because the connotations of the two words are a bit different, as are the jobs both workers normally perform. Would you explain for an Anglophone readership what a French concierge does?
Achache: In France the concierge, whether man or woman, is the person who lives in small quarters on the ground floor of an apartment building. This individual sets out the garbage bins, cleans the building, puts out the mail, etc. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer concierges these days, especially in working-class neighborhoods.
Cineaste: Is Renée’s friend Manuela being Portuguese part of a stereotype?
Achache: Yes, in France most of the concierges or cleaning women are either Spanish or Portuguese.
Cineaste: So French society stereotypes the concierge figure?
Achache: Of course.
Cineaste: Do you think French society is more likely to stereotype a figure like Renée than other Western societies?
Achache: No. Well, I don’t really know. I hate dealing with generalities, but I would insist that there are people who look at a concierge in an unbiased manner. But there are others who never notice the concierge or the cleaning staff working in a building—it is so easy to think that the people who perform these jobs are, ipso facto, ignorant. But it’s a universal perception, not just French. Class difference—how the rich look at the poor—is one of the biggest problems worldwide. Anyway, the bottom line is that Renée symbolizes all these people in the shadows—the cleaning women, the maintenance personnel—who are subjected to indifference, discrimination, prejudice. I believe that Renée, as singular as she may be, is nevertheless a character that everyone can recognize as representing this social class that is so unfairly treated by the well-off, upper-middle class.
Cineaste: How did the episode with Hubert the goldfish get into your film? What is the relationship between him and Paloma, which “resurfaces” at the end of the film, and between him and Renée? And how does this all relate to Paloma’s impression that humans must irremediably play out their lives like fish in a fishbowl?
Achache: The little fish wasn’t in the book, but there was a passage that said the world is like a fishbowl where humans exist behind glass walls. I liked this image and imagined the apartment building’s inhabitants like goldfish enclosed in this immense fishbowl that represents the social ladder: the “poor” concierge on the ground floor and the better-off tenants on the floors above, all prisoners of their respective social classes. They have all pigeonholed themselves and can’t escape in order to go towards “the other,” towards someone who is different, who doesn’t live on the same floor. This situation brings about an isolation, which is more or less assumed or avowed.
Hubert is one of the film’s metaphors: he keeps swimming around in circles. He also becomes a symbolic link between Paloma and Renée. Paloma tries to experience suicide by feeding Hubert a sleeping pill. He dies and later comes back to life in Renée’s little apartment. This is, then, a mirror effect since it is Renée, in part through her death, who gives Paloma the desire to live.
Cineaste: Several times during the film Paloma states that it is not the fact of dying that is important, but rather what the person is doing at the moment of death. Is Renée’s death an example of this? What are we supposed to understand, exactly, she is doing when she dies? Is it her efforts to get the endangered Jean-Pierre out of the street? Is it the expression of love and kindness in her last remarks addressed voice-over to Ozu and Paloma?
Achache: Renée’s death restores Paloma’s desire to live. I liked this passing on of the baton. In fact, I keep coming back to this theme of transmission in all the films I’ve made—shorts as well as documentaries. There is also the idea that, since we must all die, we have to do something so that our life will not be in vain. At the moment of her death, Renée, who was so alone, who hid from others, had opened herself up to others and to love. She had begun to genuinely live. Happiness had become possible.
I like the idea that each viewer can be free to finish the story as she or he wants. Nothing is imposed. In the film it’s a matter of life, love, happiness, curiosity, and opening up to others. Each viewer will concentrate on the theme that most resonates with her or his own life.
Cineaste: Would you discuss your approach to directing actors, particularly the child actress playing Paloma?
Achache: I use different approaches with different actors. I don’t have one single way to work with a child. I think that to direct an actor we must love that actor. We must understand him; we must understand what he needs and doesn’t need. And for me it’s the same with a child. With each actor I had a different way to work. It’s like play, a game. That’s why I love the job of directing—it’s seeing what an actor needs. And in the case of Garance in the role of a very strong and very adult little girl I wanted to work with her as if she were a little adult. It was a bit like being with my own daughter; however, when we were working, we were working, but always with joy.
Cineaste: How did you find this actress?
Achache: I really doubted that I could find the little girl I had imagined. Everything was very abstract when I wrote the script. The casting director filmed something like 200 little girls. When I saw Garance, who has the same name as my daughter, I understood that she was Paloma because she was mature, very strong, very fragile, very shy, and very determined. Not really pretty, but with a lot of charm. And she’s got that lovely manner of expressing the business about her being very intelligent. It sounds like an excuse, “I’m very intelligent.” This line was very hard for all the little girls who were auditioning, because when they said “I’m Paloma; I’m very intelligent,” it seemed very pretentious. But Garance has a very particular way of expressing herself—she’s really astounding.
Cineaste: At the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival The Hedgehog won The Golden Space Needle Audience Award and other prizes and played to sold-out audiences, and here at the 2010 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival all screenings are completely sold out. What do you think is the key to The Hedgehog's popularity and its ability to move viewers so strongly?
Achache: Everybody can see themselves in Paloma and Renée—that old concierge and that little girl. It’s a really simple story talking about life and love. And we are not used to seeing these sorts of characters talking about such subjects. I suppose that’s why people love the film.
Dennis West is a Contributing Editor at Cineaste and Professor Emeritus at the University of Idaho.
Joan M. West is Professor Emerita of French at the University of Idaho.
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Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine.