Life in a Fishbowl

With the exception of love, friendship and the beauty of Art, I don’t see much else that can nurture human life. Muriel Barbery.

I usually enjoy film adaptations of novels. But the casting needs to fit whatever image I have of the characters and, in most respects, the story should match the one depicted in the book. Variations here and there are fine, of course, but I am generally displeased when they depart too greatly from my sense of the novel and its characters.

The best film adaptations also bring alive the characters on the page and clarify uncertainties I might have had about the story. That was certainty true of the film adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient that I must have seen three or more times, unlike the novel which I read once.

I read Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog almost three years ago; I saw the film adaption, "The Hedgehog," the other day. Barbery’s novel was widely read and appreciated in France; the film version was unknown to me, has never been shown in the multiplexes (not surprising these days), and only came to my attention during a brief showing at a nearby art house.

The novel is about a concierge, Renee, in a posh Parisian townhouse. The normally grumpy Rene is a closet intellectual with a room full of fine novels whose secret life is eventually found out by the sweet and precocious eleven year old Paloma and a newly arrived Japanese millionaire, Kakuro, both of whom befriend her and discover her reading life.

The film begins by focusing on Paloma’s adolescent complaints: Her mother is a tiresome antidepressant pill-popper, her sister is a toe-varnishing snot, and her father is a politician who barely has the time of day for any of them. Paloma compares her life to the family’s pet goldfish, locked away in a family fishbowl. She plans to take her life on her twelfth birthday, spending her days before then recording the absurdity of her life with her video camera.

Meanwhile the gruff, disheveled 54-year old Renne sweeps the floors, runs errands for the townhouse residents and generally keeps her distance from everyone but her room full of books and her cat, Leo for guess who. We are to think of her as a hedgehog, all bristly and sharp on the outside, but warm and gentle on the inside.

We learn that this is precisely the way she is with the arrival of Kakuro, who discovers very quickly her love of literature, whereupon the two begin a chaste, formal romance that transformations Renee—she has a stylish haircut, finds somewhat fashionable clothes to wear when Kakuro invites her to dinner at his apartment and for the first time she begins to smile.

Paloma finds herself drawn to these two peculiar individuals, secretly filming them and eventually spending time visiting each of them. She becomes aware of Renee’s gentle soul, her love of literature, and the quiet intelligence of Kakuro. Through her growing connection with each of them and her observations of the sources of Renee’s transformation, she realizes there is much more to life than her family fishbowl.

“With the exception of love, friendship, and the beauty of Art, I don’t see much else that can nurture human life.”