Eleven-year-old Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic) likes to hide. Disdainful of her self-involved family members, she repeatedly sneaks away from them in every way possible: physically, she bolts herself in her room, dashes behind doors, and slips under tables; emotionally, she remains distanced from her family by observing them, whenever she can, from behind a second-hand video camera, narrating her documentary efforts with detached assessments of each individual’s character.
Paloma’s conclusions, for the most part, are not flattering. Her mother (Anne Brochet) is literally celebrating ten years in psychoanalysis; her father (Wladimir Yordanoff) is a government minister, “occupied, preoccupied, and brilliant,” and her sister (Sarah Le Picard) is driven mainly to outdo her parents, to be “less neurotic than her mother, and smarter than her father.” Paloma, too, wants to be different from her parents and her sister, for that matter. And so she decides that she will kill herself on her 12th birthday, avoiding what she sees as her inevitable fate. “The fishbowl isn’t for me,” she tells her camera. At this point we see that her film is not for herself at all, but a suicide note of sorts, a record of what she calls the “absurdity of life,” and her own family’s lives in particular.
If all this sounds daunting, remarkably, it isn’t. The Hedgehog presents Paloma as less troubled than merely naïve. Despite speaking in broad philosophical terms, her understanding of the world is shaped by her limited access to it, a point touchingly made when she tucks herself into bed one night and tells herself, “Pursue the stars. Don’t end up a fish in a bowl.” But the stars she seems to be wishing on at that moment are not real, but the plastic, glow-in-the-dark, stick-on type that decorate the ceiling of her bedroom.
We rarely see Paloma outside her apartment building or, for the first part of the film, away from her family. With such poor examples of what “grownups” are like, it’s no wonder she is not anxious to join their ranks. Soon, however, she strikes up a friendship with the building’s concièrge, Madame Michel (Josiane Balasko). A widow in her 50s, she is dutiful, but aloof, if not outright gruff. Paloma becomes intrigued when she discovers that one of the rooms in Madame Michel’s tiny apartment is a secret library, filled floor to ceiling with books: she likes to hide, too.
Paloma is not alone in her fascination with Madame Michel. A new tenant, the wealthy widower Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa), also takes an interest in the concièrge. When he asks her if she knew the family who previously lived in his apartment, she replies dismissively, “Happy families are all alike…” and he completes the Tolstoy quotation. This literary allusion speaks to a deeper class issue in The Hedgehog. As the concièrge, Madame Michel is beneath the notice of the other tenants. They address her only if they need something, and without greeting her or calling her by name. While they all gossip about the death of one of their neighbors, she notes that the illness and death of her own husband 15 years ago barely registered in their collective consciousness.
Paloma sees her differently, telling Kakuro that she thinks of Madame Michel as a “hedgehog”: “She’s prickly on the outside, a real fortress, but I feel that on the inside, she’s as refined as that falsely lethargic, staunchly private, and terribly elegant creature.” He also appreciates her even beginning to court her. But still, Madame Michele is afraid to accept his attentions: “No one wants a pretentious janitor,” she explains.
In this, The Hedgehog flounders a bit. Kakuro’s role in convincing Madame Michele of her worth is sometimes gentle, as when he is sure to address her by name, thank her, and ask her about herself. At other times though, he sends her new clothes to wear on a date, the scene recalls Pretty Woman. And when Madame Michel marvels that one of the tenants didn’t recognize her in her new clothes and on the arm of Kakuro, he instructs: “That’s because she has never seen you before.”
If Kakuro’s lessons for Madame Michel are obvious, her lessons for Paloma are subtler. The girl’s initial interest in the concièrge is fueled by a desire to annoy her parents. But as she gains a more nuanced understanding of her new friend, her perspective changes. She may still be childlike in her comprehension of her family, but her small world finally expands.