by writer/director Mona Achache
Every once in a while, a book such as The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery, touches a large number of people in the same way, gets shared, talked about, to eventually become a major bestseller. This is what happened in France and many other countries when it was published in 2006. Before it became such a success, I myself discovered the book almost by chance through a friend of mine, and, in a weird case of happenstance, at the same time as Anne-Dominique Toussaint, the producer of this film. As soon as I started reading the book, I was immediately touched by how well it captured the absurdity of prejudices, and the magic of improbable encounters. One Parisian building unites three atypical characters: Mrs. Renée Michel, the discreet concierge; Paloma, a bright little girl; and Kakuro Ozu, an enigmatic Japanese gentleman. The building instantaneously made me think of a more bourgeois version of the building I grew up in, where, as a little girl, I was fascinated to see how totally different people would have their lives randomly superimposed on top of one another. That is why, for my first feature film, I wanted to tell the story of this poetic twist of fate between these three characters who discover each other by looking beyond generational barriers, social prejudices and physical appearances. In life, I absolutely don’t care about the age or the ethnic origins of the ones I love.
The novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, is immensely literary, and one of the main challenges of the adaptation was to render it more cinematic. In the book, Paloma writes a journal. In the movie, she films, and she draws. I didn’t want to over-play the classical voiceover as a device, which is abundant in the book. Paloma’s camera had to represent her own voice. For Renée, I favored the muteness of the character. I wanted to show her subtlety rather than making her explicitly audible. The film (like the book) is a constant alternation of points of view between Paloma and Renée. A balance had to be found, so as not to favor one character over the other. The book is particularly rich in anecdotes and thoughts, but it was impossible to keep everything.
Right from the start, I imagined an Art Nouveau building. There is, in this architectural style, something adventurous, beyond time, poetic, but profoundly bourgeois and Parisian. I didn’t want it to be too luxurious, with abundant gold and marble. I wanted the atmosphere to be more enigmatic, darker, more imposing, and stranger. The building I was dreaming of doesn’t exist, so we shot it in a studio. Anne-Dominique Toussaint, the producer, understood that it was going to serve the story. In this way, I had the chance to write the script with a specific apartment configuration in mind. While placing the film in a realistic setting, I wanted to infuse The Hedgehog with little touches of dream, fantasy and poetry.
I thought of Josiane Balasko to play Renée Michel from the first reading of the book. I wrote this film for her, while trying to avoid it because I was so afraid she might refuse! The idea of working on the theme of lost femininity with an actress like Josiane Balasko was a prospect that I relished. Josiane is one of the most popular actresses in France, but I knew she wouldn’t be afraid of making herself look ugly in the role of the concierge. Now, every time I watch the film Josiane fascinates me. I actually think she is really beautiful in The Hedgehog because her humanity is so charming.
I know that the novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, was also very popular and much beloved in the United States. I hope that all the American audiences—both the ones that read the book and the ones that did not—will be able to recognize the characters in my film, The Hedgehog.