Film Focus: Le Hérisson (Achache, 2011)

A return after a small, unplanned hiatus due largely to, well, time running away very quickly and not being able to fill said time productively (must try to remember my own advice in the future!). However, I am back now (I hope) for a lengthier period of time.

One of the best things about doing a PhD in film studies is that I have the opportunity to discover all sorts of new and exciting films to add to my collection. This week, I would like to introduce one of my favourite film discoveries: Mona Achache’s Le Hérisson.

Image credit: Première

Set in an upmarket apartment block in a wealthy arrondissement of Paris, the film tells the story of Paloma (Garance le Guillermic), an intelligent and exceptionally observant eleven-year-old who, bored and slightly outraged by her middle-class lifestyle, decides to end it all by committing suicide on her twelfth birthday. She begins to document her life and the lives of those around her, exposing the idiosyncrasies and mundane chaos that exists behind closed doors. During this time, she meets the solitary concierge, Madame Michel (Josiane Balasko), and their two stories collide in a beautiful mélange of literature, philosophy, and stubborn documentary-making. It’s a lovely film, and completely captivating in a very simple, elegant way; as the English-language DVD box states: “No car chases, no explosions, no convoluted plot twists – yet it’s utterly captivating simply because the characters are so well drawn and full of humanity.”

However, while the film is worth watching regardless, one of the reasons (unsurprisingly) that it is one of my case studies at the moment is because of its soundtrack, composed by Gabriel Yared. The reason the film’s soundtrack is so interesting for my research links to my earlier blog post on gendered music and the way musical conventions and stereotypes are passed down through generations of composers, often subconsciously. What I set out to do, when I began looking at this film, was explore whether or not the gendered musical stereotypes that developed during the nineteenth century could be found in modern film scores, and how those stereotypes shaped our perceptions of the music and characters in the film.

What I found was that, while the stereotypes may not appear in their purest form, there are still plenty of conventions that crop up in this score. For example, we hear a “feminine cadence” at the end of the “Mademoiselle Paloma” theme, and also at the end of many of the phrases in the piece “Madame Michel.” Both of these main themes are in triple time (meaning it is split into bars of three beats), which increases the opportunity for feminine rhythms and cadences: in bars of four or two (the most common time signatures), every other beat is a “strong” beat, where as only the first beat of a bar in three is “strong.” The pieces are lilting, lyrical, and smooth, and could, I think, generally be considered as “feminine” in sound.

While the score is quite conventionally “feminine”, though, what is particularly interesting are the differences between the two main pieces associated with the protagonists. Where “Madame Michel” has a rich, smooth cello line that moves up and down in a regular pattern, “Mademoiselle Paloma” is much simpler, played on the piano, with a melody that stays largely in the same register – it doesn’t move up and down like the other track. The other piece associated with Paloma as a character, “Dans 165 jours,” is even more contrasting with “Madame Michel:” it is erratic and percussive, with no clear melody line. Additionally, where the melody to “Madame Michel” is low in pitch, the tunes in “Mademoiselle Paloma” and “Dans 165 jours” are much higher. What these differences do, though it may seem obvious when written down, is make Paloma’s themes sound much more youthful than Madame Michel’s themes. The maturity achieved by the rich cello sound is countered by the percussive sounds of the piano and marimba, which have a much younger, more erratic sound.

While all of the music is quite conventionally “feminine,” therefore, these conventions are developed and changed in order to make music that is not only “feminine,” but also “youthful.” What the score does, then, is not only reflect femininity, but the specific experiences of femininity on screen: we hear two different musical motifs for the two different female experiences on screen.

Now, while this may not sound particularly groundbreaking (music reflecting character differences is hardly new), what is interesting, especially for my PhD research, is the fact that the feminine conventions remain, and are simply developed. The music takes old stereotypes and traditions (though whether this is a conscious decision could be debated), and then changes them to create a specific “girl” sound. This method of making traditionally “feminine” music sound youthful by making melodies more percussive and sounds higher can in fact be seen in lots of the films I look at, and suggests that there are techniques developing in score composition for the creation of a specifically “girl” sound. Could it be that in the future, musicologists will write not only of “feminine” and “masculine” modes of composition, but also of “girl,” “boy,” “man,” and “woman” modes? I’ll get back to you on that one!

The soundtrack to Le Hérisson is available on Spotify here.


3 thoughts on “Film Focus: Le Hérisson (Achache, 2011)

  1. Thanks for writing this! I really enjoyed this, and it brought back memories of one of my favourite French films. While I don’t have all that many memories of the soundtrack, I’ll have a listen to it in the next day or so (thanks for the link …), and look forward to giving it some proper attention.

    In terms of pitch being used to indicate youth, would you say that this holds true across the age spectrum and genres? In an operatic context, I’m just thinking of the way in which soprano melodies with pointedly ‘high notes’ are typically sung by women (as opposed to girls), whereas something like this ( is ‘funny’ precisely because it’s so low (and perhaps comically masculine?).

    By the way, ‘stubborn documentary-making’ is a lovely way of putting it.


    1. Thanks so much for your thoughts! I definitely recommend listening to the soundtrack by itself as well as in the film – it’s really gorgeous!

      I don’t claim to be an opera expert at all, and I would welcome any input anyone can offer, and I think it’s true what you say about the super soprano parts being reserved for the “prima donna” rather than girls specifically. I do think though that there are also lots of occurrences where it is the young, innocent maiden who is given top soprano lines (I’m thinking Madama Butterfly, Micaela in Carmen, and even Christine in Phantom of the Opera).

      It would probably be interesting to look at the “children’s chorus” in lots of opera as well, so see how the pitch and style compares to other characters and ages.

      A lot can be said for the musical context in which melodies are heard, as well – a top soprano aria that is accompanied by low instruments in even tempo, and sung with the intensity of some operatic sopranos will sound much less youthful than a less intense piece accompanied by syncopated flutes.

      I love your reference to Pirates of Penzance too (one of my favourite G&S staples!) and think that the idea of being so “over-masculine” with the music that it therefore leads to humour is a really interesting one!


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