Friday, August 19, 2011

Mona Achache's THE HEDGEHOG, with Josiane Balasko, proves a mainstream-arthouse must-see; Q&A with the actress

THE HEDGEHOG -- a must-see movie for the foreign film crowd that delights in unusual tales and situations, along with rich characterization -- has been adapted and directed from the popular Muriel Barbery novel and stars French treasure Josiane Balasko as a dumpy concierge of a high-end building filled with rich twits, one smart little girl, and an exotic new Asian tenant. Filmed with elegance and savvy by Mona Achache (the fledgling, full-length filmmaker is shown below), the movie is a classy, literate, mainstream dream that gives you everything: laughs, tears, charm and -- best of all --  the unexpected.  Whatever the rest of us critics have to say, I would call this one, based on the extraordinary word-of-mouth I expect to see building, a shoo-in for foreign film/ mainstream-arthouse popularity.

When the movie made its New York debut nearly two years ago (during the 2009 Rendez-vous with French Cinema festival), I said pretty much what appears in the above paragraph, so today, I'll elaborate, having viewed the film a second time and enjoyed it just as thoroughly as the first. One thing I did not mention earlier -- along with all the charm, laughter, tears and surprise -- is what a very good story Ms Barbery tells (whose novel I have not read), and how Ms Achache has managed to distill it into just 98 attention-grabbing minutes.

First of all, there's a little girl -- a very smart one -- who has had it up-to-here with her ditzy family. This could be yet another in the long procession of clever, adorable little movie-heroines who... grate. But thanks to a marvelously intelligent and real performacne by Garance Le Guillermic (above), that "rubbing-you-the-wrong-way" factor is just about zero.

Real French film buffs will need no introduction to the movie's star, who gives another in a long line of fine performances. Josiane Balasko (shown above) is, deservedly, a national treasure on the other side of the Atlantic, but because she's no hot, sexy "looker" in the mode of most female "stars" that make any dent in in the U.S. consciousness, she's known here, if at all, only to those of us who follow French film more closely. Often very funny (she got her start -- see interview below -- doing comic cabaret), she's equally able to  break your heart or scare and/or depress you. (I wish her film Hanging Offense (Cette femme-là) would get a belated release in the USA.) In The Hedgehog, as the concierge of the building, she plays a widow who expects little from life and who slowly -- but quite truthfully -- begins to open up, with a little prodding from friends and circumstance.

The other key role is played by Japanese actor Togo Igawa, who, with nearly 90 performances to his credit, -- including everything from Topsy Turvy to Eyes Wide Shut and TV series from Torchwood and Primeval to Chancer and The IT Crowd -- you will surely recognize. The is his best role in a very long while, and he makes the most of it -- bringing to life his quiet, gracious character beautifully.

Other French stalwarts such as Anne Brochet (shown below, left), Ariane Ascaride (shown above, right, with Ms Balasko) and Gisèle Casadesus make appearances, too -- all handled by Ms Achache with economy, flair and control. That a first-time filmmaker should be given a property this big and important speaks surprisngly well for the French film industry and its producers, and especially, of course, for the filmmaker herself.

The Hedgehog, from NeoClassics Films Ltd., opens today here in New York (at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Angelika Film Center) and California (in L.A., Pasadena, Encino and Irvine). Click here, then scroll down to see all playdates, cities and theaters (around 50 of 'em!) scheduled over the next few months.


Josiane Balasko is every bit as down-to-earth, real and ready to answer questions as you might expect. We met with her and a translator (used mostly for the occasional idiom in play) at the Cassa Hotel, just off Fifth Avenue during her short stay here last month. In the following exchange, TrustMovies appears in boldface, and Ms Balasko in standard type.

I have beeen a fan of yours since, well, it seems like forever. I’ve think I’ve been a fan since before I even knew who you were. I would see you on screen, and then I’d think, “Oh—It’s her again!"  (Josiane laughs heartily – and what a laugh she has!) You know, you have been something of a staple at our yearly Rendez-vous with French Cinema.

(The translator explains the word "staple" to Ms Balasko, who shakes her head, yes.)

First question: Since you have been in this industry as actor, writer, director, even producer – right?


Well, how is a first-time director like Mona Achache able to do a movie as important as The Hedgehog – that’s something that probably wouldn’t happen here.

The director has two shorts before this, and she tried, for a long time, to do this movie. First she convince the producer. “I want to be the director, I want to be the director!” and finally she was allowed to meet the author of the novel. And finally, she convince even her!

It’s a good thing, too, since she did such a good job, as did you, and all the actors.

Yes, everybody got the right face.

That is pretty rare for a first film.

Yes, I know. (We all laugh)

Now, you still act, much more than your write or direct. The last film you wrote and directed, I believe, was Client, which we saw over here, mostly via VOD, as French Gigolo. Very good, very funny, very French, very clever. We loved it.

Yes. Good!

That was last year, right?

No, I think it was three, four years ago already.

Oh – well, we only got it here last year, I guess. Wow—four years: Do you have something new coming up?

Yes, next year. I am writing it now, and I will film next year.

But you probably don’t want to talk it about it now?

Well, it is not finished, so… no.

If you had your “druthers” -- wait a minute, I’d best not use that word -- if you could do what ever you wanted to do in the world, would you be acting, directing or writing more – or just mixing it up the way you do.

The same. Just more of it. I wish I had more than one life!

Don’t we all?! I think that this is something we feel more acutely as we grow older. Here's a question your career made me want to answer: As an actor, what is it like to play the same character in different movies, as you have done in Cette femme-là (which we called Hanging Offense) and La Clef (The Key)?

from Hanging Offense (Cette femme-là)

Well, this was not exactly the same characters, even though they have the same name, are the same person, and have the same professions.

Hmmm… Is The Key(La Clef) darker or not as dark as Hanging Offense.

It is not as dark.

Ah-- that would make a big difference.

This director, Guillaume Nicloux, he had his own music, you know. He does not really direct actors so much.

He leaves you on your own?

Not really on your own. He lets you find the music of your character.

Of all your films, that one has stayed with me in odd ways.

from The Key (Le Clef)

Nicloux, you know, he writes very dark. And that shoot you know, it was so cold and so difficult to do.

Lets talk abut something sunny then: With the Les Bronzes series, that was another instance of your playing the same character?

Yes, and we made one film right after the other, but then, after some years, we made the third film. It was like old friends getting together again after a very long time. These were very popular movies – ten million people went to see them in France.

What does it cost to go to a movie in France?

Probably the same as in Amercia – with the currency difference.

So you are happy bouncing around from directing to acting to writing and producing?

Yes I am happy. And I also do theater, too. And I love to do all these things. It depends on the idea. When I find a good idea, in any form, then I want to do it.

How often do you do legitimate theater?

Maybe every four or five years. And then, when I do it, it may last from four to five months.

So that is a real chunk out of your life. Did you begin your career in legitimate theater, or in film or TV?

No, we start in something like... (she consults with the translator) cabaret, where you can do small sketches, like comedy, and in smaller venues.

Ah. Do you ever do anything like that again, now?


It would probably be mobbed by your fans, right?

(She shrugs and smiles.)

What is your take on the current political situation in France? Is it getting more right-wing or are the French able to keep that down?

I think this is like... a threat – but something that is not going to happen. It will come to nothing. You have this here, too, no?

I think it is worse in our country. And I know that you are not a politician, but do you think that the Euro will stay as the currency of all Europe, or will each country go back to its original currency?

I think we will continue with the Euro because otherwise it would be very unstable.

The European community could fail as a community.  Is there anything you would like to talk about that journalists never ask you. Here’s your chance. (She and her translator both laugh).

(As she thinks about this, I ask) I understand from your publicist that you are married to an American Indian – and that it was same man – the actor who played the Indian in Client?

Yes, yes.

from French Gigolo (Cliente)

Do you both come back here to the US often?

Yes, he more often than me. But I come as often as I want. I come as a tourist. I now know Flint Michigan because George, my husband (shown above, right), is from Flint.

Wow: Did he work for General Motors?

No, but his father did. It was very different back then, he tells me. The company then provided so much for its employees.

Things were very different back then. We call that time very paternalistic. But the western world does not seem that way anymore. (Josiane shakes her head in agreement) Was The Hedgehog a hit in France?

Yes it was. Not a huge hit but quite successful.

It seems to me that this movie could become a big arthouse hit over here. It’s touching without being sappy, funny without being a sitcom, and it offers a really wonderful array of characters.

Some people were angry at me for what happened at the end. “Why did you have to … ?” they ask me. (We’re giving away no spoilers here)

But that is how the book did it, too, right?

Yes. But the book was more, perhaps, philosophical.

We chat a bit more before bidding adieu to this wonderful performer, whose next film, next year, we’ll look forward to seeing.

(Unless stated otherwise, all the photos above are from The Hedgehog, courtesy of NeoClassics Films Ltd.

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