Discovering elegance in the fiercely solitary creatures

Take time to discover the hidden, and even forgotten is what the 2009 French movie, “The Hedgehog” urges. Think of a prickly, curled up ball that reveals a shy hedgehog. There’s a certain elegance in becoming something people might overlook or ignore. Or think of it as buried treasure.

Too often, during Women’s History month, we think of young women–either women on their way into the world or someone who as a young woman ventured into the world and became a pioneer.

Although we hear an older, wiser Jennifer, we only see the young Nurse Jennifer Lee in “Call the Midwife.” In “Bomb Girls,” we’re mostly concerned with how our young, privileged woman learns about the working world. The young are our future, but without looking at the past, things will not change.

Yet what about the poor, the old and unlovely? French novelist and professor of philosophy Muriel Barbery wrote about one such woman in her 2006 novel “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” (L’Élégance du hérisson) which became the 2009 movie, “The Hedgehog” (Le Hérisson). The hedgehog in question is the 54-year-old Mrs. Renée Michel. Widowed, she has lived 27 years nearly invisible to the upper class tenants of the building she manages. The movie calls her a concierge. In the U.S., she would be something like the manager.

No one notices the widow, except for an 11-year-old misfit girl, Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic), who has decided that on her 12th birthday she will commit suicide. Until then, she records on video the banality of her family’s life. Things might have continued according to Paloma’s plan except someone dies. The death of a critic opens up a living quarters in the building and an elderly widow, Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa) moves in. When he meets Renée, she makes an off-hand remark, one that instantly informs Ozu that Renée is not who or what she pretends to be. Kakuro and Paloma become conspirators in an investigation.

Director Mona Achache also adapted Barbery’s novel with sensitivity. The movie respects the intelligence of children by not dumbing things down, but shows us how sometimes adults attempt to dumb down children. Paloma is at the tender age when her intelligence is not appreciated by her parents and makes her the target of ill will from other children her age.

Achache doesn’t take the focus away from Balasko’s Renée. Surely the temptation here would have been to make an easy movie of a beautiful but misunderstood precocious tween and even give this movie a happy ending. Instead, we see problems of economic class and the parallel between two female human beings–a girl and a mature woman–who are both faced with a culture that encourages them to hide away their intelligence.

Isn’t that choice still being made? And not only in France, but also in the United States? How many beautiful minds, minds that could perhaps solve so many problems of this world, been dimmed in order to fit in nicely with the rest of this man’s world?

For that reason, this movie, “The Hedgehog,” well-worth seeing for women and men of all ages. The movie won the Audience Award at the Washington DC Filmfest, the 2009 Special Award, Best Director, FIPRESCI and Silver Award at the Cairo International Film Festival. It also won the Golden Space Needle Award for Best Film at the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival. You might not think hedgehogs are elegant, but in their own way all animals and all of God’s creatures are if they are allowed to be the best that they can be. The movie is live streaming on Netflix and Fandango. In French with English subtitles.

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