It’s hard to imagine a less cinematic novel than The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Author Muriel Barbery is a professor of philosophy, and the book reads more like a series of essays than a story. What made it work was the way Barbery created engaging voices for the two characters considering all those abstruce and arcane philosophical and literary concepts. The movie gives us those characters without the ideas. It is pleasant enough but it is like a frame without a picture.
The two characters, a middle-aged woman and an 11-year-old girl, barely know one another but they have three important things in common. They live in the same building. They are both autodidacts with prodigious intelligence. And both are invisible to everyone around them. Renee (Josiane Balasko) is the building’s concierge. No one pays any attention to her unless they need something and that is fine with her. She has a hidden room filled with books and her inner life is rich and satisfying. The husband who may not have understood her but truly appreciated her has died. She has just one friend, a warm-hearted woman who has no idea that Renee has read more than most college professors. Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic) feels so isolated by the superficial concerns of everyone in her family that she cooly decides to kill herself on her 13th birthday.
The way that these two discover each other and the sweetness of their friendship is touching. Balasko and Le Guillermic bring a lot of intelligence and sensitivity to their performances. Togo Igawa is lovely as Mr. Ozu, a new resident of the building, but his character is too perfect a Prince Charming to make his relationship with Renee meaningful. And, as with the book, the ending is jarring and unearned. Without the depth of the book, it seems like an arty Hallmark movie.