When a movie's 11-year-old narrator begins by announcing that she'll commit suicide on her 12th birthday, either melodrama or whimsy will ensue. The Hedgehog goes heavier on the whimsy, but concludes with a capricious melodramatic twist.
Perhaps the ending worked better in the book, Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which sold more than a million copies in France. Certainly this adaptation, Mona Achache's directorial debut, is a very bookish movie. It's set in an upscale Paris apartment building where even the cats are literary.
Narrator Paloma Josse (Garance Le Guillermic) lives with her parents, high-school-age sister and two felines, named Constitution and Parliament. (The precocious girl's distracted, mostly absent father is a politician.) But the crucial cats belong to concierge Renee Michel (Josiane Balasko) -- the story's bristly "hedgehog" -- and a new tenant, Japanese businessman Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa).
The long-widowed Renee cohabits with Leo, while the chivalrous Ozu has Kitty and Levin. Those who don't recognize those names as references to Tolstoy and characters from his Anna Karenina are probably not on The Hedgehog's wavelength.
At first, precocious Paloma is intent on documenting her final months on Earth with her dad's old video camera. She considers grownup life to be as confined as the existence of her sister's goldfish, whose demise the girl attempts to arrange as a rehearsal for her own. Paloma, who has already videotaped the removal of a neighbor's corpse, has yet to learn that death can sting.
But Paloma begins to lose her fatal focus when she discovers that some people are not as predictable as her own family. She learns that frumpy Renee, who publicly conforms to the residents' snobby assumptions about the shallowness of working-class people, is secretly a bibliophile, cineaste and gourmet.
The concierge's cover is blown when the Japanese man discerns -- via Anna Karenina's most quoted lines -- that he and Renee share an interest in Tolstoy, as well as the films of the newcomer's esteemed namesake, Yasujiro Ozu. The businessman helps Renee upgrade her wardrobe, cooks Japanese food for her and hosts a private screening of Ozu's 1950 movie The Munekata Sisters. Balasko deftly portrays Renee's initial terror of, and subsequent pleasure at, receiving a man's attention after many years alone.
Paloma does have other projects besides observing Renee and Ozu's tentative romance. The girl, who speaks a little Japanese, does Asian-style ink drawings that turn into brief animated segments. She clashes with her Valium-dependent mother, who suggests that Paloma see a psychoanalyst. And she plays Go with Ozu, who has turned his grand apartment into le petit Kyoto.
The movie's invocations of Tolstoy and Yasujiro Ozu -- not to mention Roland Barthes and William of Ockham -- seem a little forced. But then The Hedgehog is not exactly a naturalistic drama, and its winsome charm and annoying contrivance are thoroughly intertwined. At least the Ozu connection has a thematic rationale: Paloma shares the outlook of kids in several of the director's best-known movies, including Ohayo, who reject the emptiness and hypocrisy of adult life.
Another of the film's themes is the class divide. Of the building's residents, only Paloma and Ozu can see Renee for what she is; the rest barely see her at all.
Ultimately, though, the movie also discounts Renee; the hedgehog exists primarily to deepen Paloma's appreciation of life. That development gives The Hedgehog a bitter aftertaste that undermines its mostly sweet tale. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.