Janitors who read Tolstoy on their down time.

Eleven-year-old girls who debate Teutonic philosophy.

Welcome to French writer-director Mona Achache's feature debut, The Hedgehog, an enchanting grown-up fairy tale about the redemptive power of love.

Adapted from the best-selling novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by the French philosopher Muriel Barbery, The Hedgehog is full of heart, passion, and human longing - but also a good dose of existentialism. Think of it as Sartre's Being and Nothingness-meets-Dr. Seuss.

Teen actor Garance Le Guillermic stars as Paloma Josse, a disturbingly precocious 11-year-old who feels so alienated from her parents' upper-middle-class, bourgeois lives in Paris that she plans to kill herself on her 12th birthday.

Paloma's dad, Paul (Wladimir Yordanoff), is a high-powered politician too busy for her, while her mom, Solange (Anne Brochet), is a pill-popping, champagne-swilling nervous wreck.

Paloma escapes her world by employing her razor-sharp, if immature, intellect to debate that ultimate, Hamlet-size question to end all questions, "to live or not to live?" She's a pint-size Albert Camus, opining that we're all trapped in a meaningless, mad cycle that ends only with death.

Paloma's death wish seems unreal, as unreal perhaps as her wigged-out observations. "Only psychiatry rivals religion for love of suffering" is a personal favorite.

But her suffering is real.

No slouch, our Gallic existentialist picks up a camcorder and begins to shoot a home movie to show "why life is absurd." The flick, she says, will serve as her suicide note.

Paloma's only real refuge is her luxury apartment building's lonely concierge/janitor Renée Michel (a superb Josiane Balasko).

Grisly, unkempt, sharp-tongued, and bilious, the fifty-something Renée is also a sensitive soul on the verge of despair. Paloma calls her a hedgehog, "prickly on the outside but elegant and refined on the inside."

Renée lacks self-esteem, to use that very un-Gallic term. "You're just a hideous janitor, a mad old cow," she says to herself.

She finds solace amid her books, escaping to the back room to read the Russian masters to her beloved cat, Leo. (Named, we presume, after Renée's idol, Tolstoy.)

Renée's closed-off world shifts when elderly Japanese widower Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa) moves into the building.

As chance would have it, Ozu is a lifetime Tolstoy devotee. He sees through Renée's defenses and courts her, rather chastely, with affection, attention, and compassion - not to mention a gorgeous antique edition of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.

The growing friendship between Renée and Ozu, their authenticity as loving people, melts Paloma's cynicism. Here are two adults who connect on a level she has never seen at home.

The Hedgehog ends on a plot turn some may find contrived. It's of little consequence given the refreshing emotional and intellectual honesty that propels the film.


Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.