The Hedgehog is a very unexpectedly touching film. It starts off jarringly, with 11-year-old Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic) sick and tired of watching her self possessed family decides she is going to end her life when she turns 12. She takes an old video camera and starts observing those around her apartment building and observes at the building’s concierge Renée, an anti-social Tolstoy loving woman. The other person in this triangle of outsiders is Mr. Ozu an apartment resident who is drawn to Renee and actually sees her unlike the rest of the French residents. He draws her out of her shell and they form a friendship, one that ends up inspiring Paloma that maybe there are things worth living for.
Director Mona Acache adapted the best selling novel and answered some questions about the film by email. (They were also translated)
THE HEDGEHOG opens today in New York at The Lincoln Plaza & Angelika Cinemas & Los Angeles at The Landmark and Laemmle’s Playhouse and Town Center.
Women and Hollywood: What drew you to this story? Did you always know that you wanted to write and direct it?
Mona Acache: I had met the producer, Anne-Dominique Toussaint, 2 years before we started our collaboration. I had submitted one of my scripts to her which she enjoyed, but she found the subject a little “dreary”. She suggested that I work on something a little lighter for us to work together. My previous films had been shorts and documentaries. For my first feature, I had always liked the idea of a book adaptation. During my search for the right one, I spent an entire afternoon looking at various books at one of my favorite book store. After a few hours of browsing, I decided to go for a new release, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, because I was seduced and intrigued by the premise the two characters of Paloma and Rene.
After a long long wait at the cash register, I was getting late and gave up on buying anything that day. That same evening, I was having dinner with my neighbor, and I tell her all about how intrigued I was by this book. Incidentally, she had just finished it and had loved it. She offered to lend it to me. As I read it, I was immediately enchanted by the juxtaposition of this very precocious, intelligent child with such a dark outlook of life, and this concierge that hides her education under society’s stereotypes that her job implies. As I was reading the book, the desire of telling this story becomes clear. Before I even finished it, I can see the characters of course, but also the sets, the costumes, and some ideas to make it more cinematic.
Upon finishing the book, I called Anne-Dominique again, to tell her about my “find”. She tells me she’s actually in the middle of reading it and she loved it. Shortly after, we were able to meet with the author, Muriel Barbery, with the publisher, Gallimard. Muriel liked my vision and we “won” the rights over a number of other directors and producers.
WaH: Did you find it daunting to take such a beloved and popular book and adapt it?
MA: When I discovered the novel, it had just come out and was not quite the success it eventually became. To direct one’s first feature film is always a process filled with anguish. While I was writing the screenplay, the novel slowly became a best seller. I was particularly careful not to pay much attention to what was being said or written about it. I felt I had to stay focused on the film I wanted to direct. I think had I fully realized the extent of the phenomenon the book was turning into, it would have just paralyzed me with fear.
WaH: The first scene in the film is a jarring declaration from an 11 year old that she will kill herself on her 12th birthday. That seems to be quite a tone setting moment. Talk a bit about that scene.
MA: This was the scene that essentially introduced and anchored Paloma’s character in the story : intelligent, humble, suicidal, and… determined. This is the only scene we really worked on a lot on with the young actress, Garance Le Guillermic as we were preparing the film. This scene alone allowed us to build her role: her voice, her physicality, her little habits, posture, how she films. It was also the first scene we shot on day one. We also re-shot it on the last day as well. I wanted Garance to to have an opportunity to do it again once she had lived through the entire story. But it was important for me that we started with that scene, even if it would have to be redone.
WaH: At first I thought the film was going to be a coming of age story of a girl but it turned out to be a film about outsiders. How would you describe the film?
MA: That is what I liked so much about this story. The multiple themes of the film are developing around these 3 characters, and follow their evolution. Everyone will probably retain a different aspect of the film as a result. But it is true that the questions of differences, of a certain curiosity towards others, emerge strongly. Each character is very unique, and is going to surmount generational and social barriers to the service of the discovery and encounter of the other.
WaH: I love the term The Hedgehog because that so describes Renee Michel. She plays a woman who is so far in her shell that it is so difficult for her to come out, but once she does she starts to lose her gruff exterior with people she trusts. Was it a challenge to have such a popular actress like Josiane play such a difficult woman?
MA: The idea of working on the the theme of lost femininity with an actress such as Josiane was something I truly relished. Josiane has the gift of metamorphosis. She is not afraid of using her body image, even if it means making herself look ugly for a role. Here again during preparation, we worked a lot on her appearance, and it became a roundabout way to address Renée’s psychology. It is when we started working on the physicality and appearance of the character that we were able to truly develop it: no make-up, just a pair of thick high brows, and non-flattering wig. But every time I see the film, I find the character of Renée beautiful because I find her humanity irresistible.
There is that scene that I find very overwhelming: that of the hairdresser. It is the first time someone takes care of her, cares for her well-being. In an instant, that femininity that she works hard to suppress emerges. For me as anecdotal as this scene may appear, it is very important. At the beginning of the scene, we feel her shyness, her “bad-being”, her submission. In a word, she opens the door to sensuality in that scene.
WaH: Josiane Balasko is also a director. Did she offer you any words of wisdom?
MA: She gave me her confidence and enthusiasm, which are the most beautiful gifts. On the set, she really was an actress, and not a director. She really likes to separate both jobs. She does not mix them up.
WaH: My favorite line in the film is when Kakuro and Renee Michel are going out on their date and she is not recognized be one of the tenants of the building and Kakuro says to Renee that she never saw her before. What does that moment say about class issues in French culture — or any other culture?
MA: The Hedgehog is a singular encounter between a rich Japanese gentleman and a concierge in Paris, but I believe this story to be deeply universal. Every cultures suffer today from deepening gulfs between the classes in my opinion. More often than not, people only look at those who are similar to them. It is often too rare that for these social barriers to be overcome, and for individuals to go beyond the basic appearance of the other.
WaH: What was the biggest challenge in getting this film made?
MA: Some books are more literary than other. “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” is particularly literary. So the biggest challenge was to make it more cinematic. In the book, Paloma writes a journal. In the movie, she films, and she draws. To me, there was a modern fairy-tale aspect to the book. I wanted to re-create a visual universe that translated what I felt when I read the book. There was a part or dream and poetry that I wanted to emulate on film.
WaH: What advice do you have to offer other directors?
MA: I have too much self-doubt to dare giving advice to others. The thing that I decided while directing my second feature film, drawing from my experience on THE HEDGEHOG, is to make sure to feel free to push my boundaries, to listen to my instincts, my desires, to do the best I can to have things take shape based on that.
WaH: What’s next for you?
MA: I just finished directing a film for the television channel ARTE. It is a comedy about the traverses of capitalism : a poor family becomes rich. A rich family becomes poor. These two families have nothing in common, except for the same banker. I know. Yet another film about class differences. At the same time, I continue writing what – I hope – will be my next feature film.