As with Submarine, The Hedgehog proves that Rushmore‘s influence has now completely spread across the Atlantic. The second-rate Max Fischer of Mona Achache’s French film, inspired by Muriel Barbery’s novel, is Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic), a bespectacled 11-year-old know-it-all whose signature quirk is her plan—to be enacted 165 days from story’s start—to kill herself, a suicide born from a desire to reject her affluent life inside “a fishbowl.” Woe is the smart-ass little rich girl, who uses her video camera’s lens to pass judgment on her antidepressant-popping mother (Anne Brochet), stuck-up sister (Sarah Lepicard), and careerist father (Wladimir Yordanoff), all of whom Paloma believes are horrific visions of her fated adult future.
Feeding prescription pills to her sis’s pet goldfish and criticizing adults for not seeing that death is merely a “commonplace” occurrence to be embraced, Paloma, who rarely speaks to others, preferring instead to engage in monologues to her camera, is a prototypically repellent idiosyncratic-tortured-soul tween. What’s even stranger, then, isn’t that Achache’s tale indulges in its protagonist’s twee preoccupations and ruminations, but rather that it eventually makes them secondary, choosing at its midway point to instead shift its focus to that of Renée (Josiane Balasko), Paloma’s building janitor and avid Russian-lit aficionado, and her budding relationship with like-minded new tenant Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa).
Transferring attention from Paloma toward Renée, The Hedgehog—its title a reference to Paloma’s nickname for Renée, who’s hard on the outside but refined on the inside—at least alleviates some of its cutesy eccentricity, which is mercifully not felt in Achache’s unadventurous but straightforward aesthetics. What that means, however, is that the film becomes a late-in-life melodrama of a self-consciously modest sort, spending most of its time having Renée warm to Ozu’s pseudo-romantic overtures via noodle dinners and screenings of The Munekata Sisters.
Just as Paloma’s parents and their neighbors are a stereotypically snooty bunch, Michel and Ozu’s relationship carries with it class tensions, but Achache engages with them so cursorily as to render them toothless. Though stuck in a thanklessly clichéd and unbelievable role, Balasko captures Renée’s longing in small, measured gestures (such as the way she comfortably, lovingly strokes her pet cat), but the material’s overriding messages (you can choose your own fate! Life is full of surprises! Death really is serious!) are depressingly rote, and come to a head with a late catastrophe that exposes one of its two principal characters as merely a device designed to foster the other’s worldview awakening. Opening with the image of a flashlight in the dark, The Hedgehog ultimately illuminates only the continued lameness of employing out-of-leftfield tragedy for cheap bathos.