Thursday, 1 September 2011

GFT programme note: The Hedgehog

The Hedgehog is playing at the GFT and elsewhere from tomorrow and it's, er, ok. It's safe to say I wasn't bowled over by it, but I found enough worth saying to write these here programme notes...


All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.[1]

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

The Hedgehog focuses on two unhappy residents of a French townhouse, each unhappy in her own way. Eleven-year-old Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic) vows to avoid the pointless monotony of life in what she terms the ‘fishbowl’ – ‘a world where adults bang like flies on the glass.’ She decides to escape this dreaded fate by killing herself on her twelfth birthday, documenting her final days on a borrowed camera, into which she freely philosophises with insight beyond her slender years. Two floors below in la loge, concierge Renée Michel (Josiane Balasko) intentionally sequesters herself from those she serves. She conceals her formidable intelligence behind a surly demeanour, so as to conform to the ‘consensual cliché’ assigned to her lowly social status: uneducated, uninterested and uninteresting. When one of the building’s tenants dies of a heart attack, Japanese widower Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa) takes occupancy of the vacated apartment. His arrival perks up both troubled souls: Paloma is keen to show off her Japanese vocabulary, while Renée wonders whether he is related to Yasijirô Ozu (one of her many clandestine cultural passions). When they are first introduced, Renée accidentally half-quotes Anna Karenina’s opening lines regarding the inter-changeability of happy families, affording Kakuro a glimpse behind the closet scholar’s brittle shell. What to others seems ingrained misanthropy is to Kakuro a coded expression of Renée’s concealed sophistication; an insight into a private existence enriched by literature, cinema and philosophy.

As the above references to Tolstoy and Ozu indicate, The Hedgehog does not share Renée’s coyness when it comes to making cultural allusions: a copy of Jun’ichirõ’s In Praise of Shadows is an early clue to Renée’s secret identity, while passing references are made to 14th-century Franciscan friar William of Ockham (he of the razor principle) and mountaineering manga The Summit of the Gods by Jiro Taniguchi. Muriel Barbery’s source novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog packed in further intellectual touchstones still – Roland Barthes, Immanuel Kant and Edmund Husserl, amongst others – yet nonetheless achieved mainstream popularity, spending 102 consecutive weeks on France’s bestseller list. The New York Times, amongst others, attributed the novel’s success to its accessibility, with its meditations married to a relatively straightforward tale of disconnected outsiders finding solace in art and, subsequently, each other.[2]

Against charges of heavy-handedness (or worse, pretentiousness), Barbery argues that the novel’s highbrow veneer is merely an expression of her personal passions, claiming she was ‘just creating characters who love the things I do, and who allowed me to celebrate that through them.’[3] For a former philosophy teacher, born in Paris and now living in Kyoto, this equates quite logically to existential introspection and a celebration of Japanese culture (from games of Go, to meals of gyoza and sake). Inadvertently or otherwise, director Mona Achache follows Barbery’s example, skewing her screenplay towards the artistic endeavour closest to her own heart: namely, filmmaking itself. While the novel alternates the role of narrator between Renée and Paloma, Achache’s adaptation irons out the narrative’s kinks, placing the emphasis (initially at least) on Paloma alone, as she incessantly films the daily activities of the building’s occupants. Her commentary-to-camera preserves some of the novel’s subjective narration, as she precociously denigrates what she considers to be the empty bourgeois lives surrounding her, from her father’s preoccupation with work to her mother’s dependence on psychoanalysis and antidepressants. But the parallels between director and character only extend so far: while Paloma aims to capture life’s inescapable absurdity, The Hedgehog uncovers its inherent value; life, it concludes, is worth living. Despite her suicidal intentions, Paloma herself gives expression to this simple (but profound) ideal when she declares early on that ‘what matters isn’t the fact of dying or when you die, it’s what you’re doing at that precise moment’ – a paean to living every moment as if it were your last (albeit one delivered by a pre-teen wallowing in premature fatalism).

Paloma may be the voice of The Hedgehog, but Renée is its heart; indeed, she is the subject of the title’s metaphor – ‘prickly on the outside’ but, beneath the quills, ‘as refined as that falsely lethargic, staunchly private and terribly elegant creature.’ Initially, she is self-consciously confined to her own version of the fishbowl – not the deadening stupor feared by Paloma, but a hidden sanctum filled with leather-bound books, from which she is gradually coaxed by the perseverant Kakuro. Renée’s feline companion Leo (named, naturally, after Tolstoy – pointedly, Kakuro’s cats are named Kitty and Levin) is the first to fly the coop, darting into the stairwell when Renée’s back is turned, thereby initiating his owner’s tentative steps away from hermetic isolation. In addition to their respective choice of pet, Kakuro and Renée discover further overlapping interests, and while their burgeoning friendship/courtship involves predictable culture clash jokes (‘It’s a Japanese thing’ Kakuro explains when Renée is sprayed by his Mozart-playing toilet), there are also moments of calm connection, notably a screening of The Munekata Sisters (Ozu, 1950) during which the unspoken love onscreen acts as a conduit of sorts for its audience of two.

Twenty-five years ago, Anna Karenina inspired another, very different, tale of unhappy families. In Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Woody Allen borrowed an aphorism from Tolstoy to support his pessimistic perspective on the human condition. ‘The only absolute knowledge attainable by man,’ one of the film’s inter-titles reads, ‘is that life is meaningless.’ The Hedgehog begs to differ: absolute knowledge may be elusive – no matter how many books one reads – but as the sum of our relationships, daily reminders of life’s meaning exist all around.

Christopher Buckle
Researcher and Journalist
University of Glasgow

[1] Leo Tolstoy (2003 edition, tr. Constance Garnett), Anna Karenina (Barnes & Noble Classics, New York) p. 5

[2] Caryn James, ‘Thinking on the Sly’, The New York Times, 5 September 2008, accessed at

[3] Bruce Crumley, ‘Muriel Barbery: An Elegant Quill’ Time, 27 August 2008, accessed at,9171,1836659,00.html

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