The Hedgehog

I was visiting my brother in West New York over the weekend, and before I left Michigan he called to make sure I brought some of our favorite movies that we’ve watched together many times before. Among the stack I brought were Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things and the 1982 made-for-TV Scarlet Pimpernel with Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour. But what we actually ended up watching was Clueless and Mona Achache’s The Hedgehog.

The Hedgehog is one of those rare Netflix finds I stumbled on one night when I just wanted something to watch. In stereotypically French fashion, eleven-year-old Paloma Josse has decided to commit suicide on her twelfth birthday, but only after she has completed a scathing documentary film about how meaningless life is. There are an unnecessary number of cats in the film, an intriguing Japanese man who cooks ramen and watches old black-and-white movies, and philosophical tangents about death as the goal of the game of chess. In other words, it’s totally my sort of movie.

I hadn’t watched The Hedgehog for several years; in the interim I have studied some French, come more to terms with my own existential pessimism, and gained some retrospective distance on my childhood. What immediately struck me on rewatching The Hedgehog was that the questions it asks about privilege, despair, growing up, creativity, and love are questions I have also asked for many, many years, so I better understand now why I resonated so strongly with the film when I first encountered it.

What also struck me was the meticulous construction and economy of the film. Important scenes or images are carefully foreshadowed in ways I had never noticed before. Early in the film, in an apparently throw-away shot, one of the characters cuts a piece of her hair—but later when she gets a haircut, it’s a significant turning point for the character’s growth. Another example is that there is a secret room in one character’s apartment, and shots of the door and references to the contents of the room (a library) are slowly introduced to the viewers before we finally are allowed to enter the room. My brother (who is a musician) pointed out that the development of the main theme changes over the course of the film and responds directly to the blossoming of the characters’ friendships.

The Hedgehog isn’t only existential and intellectual, however, and that too is part of what I love about it. The side characters are often funny (if in a darkly humorous way), and while the film’s outlook engages gently and empathetically with Paloma’s adolescent fears and ambition, the film’s construction is also self-conscious of the melodrama of Paloma’s actions. Somehow the movie walks that fine line between taking itself seriously but not taking itself too seriously, all supported by technical, careful writing and production. That it is a film about living well in connected, loving relationships only makes me like it more. 

There’s a lot of good story-craft for me to still pick up from The Hedgehog, and I hope I keep rewatching it for years to come.

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