Sunday, June 17, 2012

From Book to Film

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

                                                                                                  Muriel Barbéry


The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbéry
Print:  Europa, 2008, 226 pages. Translated from the French by Alison Anderson.
Audio: HighBridge, 2009, 9 hours [English]

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the story of a friendship between a middle-aged concierge, a young French girl, and a Japanese man, all of whom live in an upscale building in Paris. The more numerous journal entries of Barbéry’s middle-aged heroine, Renee Michel, are interspersed with passages containing the thoughts of the girl Paloma. Both writers are alienated: Renee from society, Paloma from her family. Both writers are philosophers, however, and subject the stuff of daily life to intense, transformative scrutiny. Enter new tenant Kakuro Ozu, and the novel’s characters and philosophy become lighthearted, even whimsical. Barbéry’s characters are real, her storyline delicately articulated and compelling. In an interview with Laura Lamanda (La Repubblica, Italy, August 25, 2007) the author specifies her use of ideas in fiction as an illumination of the bearing that philosophy can have on life. Together with her flesh-and-blood characters, philosophy as truth-seeking and the critique of culture are at the core of Barbéry’s novel.


The Hedgehog (Le Hérisson), 2009
Directed by Mona Achache, and featuring Josiane Balasko as Renee Michel, Garance Le Guillermic as Paloma, and Togo Igawa as Kakuro Ozu.

The film by French director Mona Achache offers a striking visual re-imagining of Barbéry’s novel, and a subtle, intelligent understanding of the novel’s main characters. Achache foregrounds the girl Paloma, who is characteristically shown behind a video camera, recording the lives of her family and the people in her building much as the filmmaker records them. Indeed, we first see Renee, the middle-aged concierge, through Paloma’s eyes. This is a role reversal of the character presentation in the novel; while the novel’s point of view alternates between Renee and Paloma, it is clear that the dominant voice is Renee’s. What is crucially missing from the film is our internal knowing of Renee’s thoughts – not just her feelings, but her analysis, her ideas. For while the reader of the novel becomes intimately familiar with Renee’s mind as reflected in her journal, the moviegoer sees Renee, writer and thinker, from the outside.

It must be daunting for a filmmaker to re-imagine a novel of ideas. Achache succeeds in finding powerful visual symbols for the emotional themes of the novel. And the Renee of the film is beautifully acted. But Renee’s ideas, as developed in the novel, are as much a reflection of her spirit as the emotional bonds she forms. Renee’s ideas express the core of her being. Without a full articulation of Renee’s critical consciousness, her fate becomes unbearably sad, and we are insufficiently compensated for this imbalance in the film by the redemption, at story’s end, of Paloma. Barbéry’s development of Renee’s character through her words and ideas suggests the full realization of a life. In the film, that fullness is sadly missing.       

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