The Hedgehog is French director Mona Achache’s first feature film and is an impressive debut. Adapted for the screen by Achache and based on the internationally acclaimed novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, it is a darkly comic and poignant tale about class, misrecognition and a child’s insight. Set in a wealthy Parisian apartment block, the film peels away the layers of class and conceit that have encased the life of the building’s live-in concierge, Renée Michel (Josiane Balasko).

We first meet her neighbour Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic); an emotionally neglected child who has decided to kill herself on her twelfth birthday. She is making a film to document, as she says, ‘why life is absurd’, and much of The Hedgehog is seen through the lens of her camera and thus from her perspective. It is the gaze of a child who resents the adult world, narrating in whispers behind the camera what she perceives to be its hypocrisy and tedium with utmost disgust.

As Paloma’s planned suicide draws near a new and intriguing neighbour, Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa), moves in and they are instantly caught in a web of mutual fascination for Renée. In their refusal to see Renée defined solely by her occupation and class, a replaceable cog in the building’s mechanics, they uncover her furtive lust for literature and film.

Achache brings a sensitive balance to this adaptation, astutely merging distinct stylistic elements. The Hedgehog is imbued with a robust sense of realism from the start, when Paloma introduces herself in front of an old video camera before moving around to film a satirical cinéma vérité–style documentary of her dysfunctional family. Then, as the film progresses, animation is used expressively to breathe life into Paloma’s world – she inks in days on a calendar that are animated like a living storyboard. This technique does not evoke astonishing realms for the protagonists’ escape, but reflects with a child’s imaginative clarity the way things actually are and a hope for what they might become.

At its heart The Hedgehog is about the dangers of mistaking a person’s class for their whole being, so its success relies on the actors’ ability to suggest complex landscapes beneath the surface. In this regard, Josiane Balasko’s performance as Renée is particularly convincing. She skilfully conveys an inner elegance and intellect, bubbling beneath the surface of her outer performance as the self-effacing concierge. Togo Igawa’s portrayal of Kakuro is likewise impressive, for he radiates an inner calm and acceptance that appears not as a result of his character’s wealth, but as a consequence of having experienced deep personal losses. Indeed, all the performances in this ensemble piece are strong, with Garance Le Guillermic surprisingly likeable as the petulant but sensitive Paloma.

Adapting a beloved novel for the screen is a risky business and some fans may have problems with the film’s departures from Barbery’s original. Unlike the novel, the film gives us only limited access into Renée’s acute understandings of philosophy and her awareness that she is playing a socially constructed role. However, it is to Achache’s credit that she chose to moderate Paloma’s philosophising for the screen. Without losing any of Paloma’s overall function in the novel, Achache’s screenplay constructs a more recognisable character for the requirements of a very different medium. And despite differences in form and detail the film remains faithful to the overall narrative and thematic impetus of Barbery’s novel, an ambivalent contemporary parable about scratching below the surface of class conceits to discover oneself.

Kate Harper completed Honours in Cinema Studies at The University of Melbourne and now works as a freelance writer.