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The physics teacher protagonist of Mrs. Hyde (Madame Hyde), an offbeat, gender-swapped update of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson tale of split identities, explains to one of her students that in science, sometimes you can’t think in a straight line so you need a detour to get to your answer. Much the same applies to the cinema of idiosyncratic oddball Serge Bozon (La France), which is clearly the opposite of realistic — the titular protagonist is here sometimes literally incandescent after being hit by lightning — but which often manages to say more about the state of France and French or even Western society today than more documentary-like dramas. Eccentric and occasionally hilarious, this is yet another uniquely Bozonian creation, which this time explores the transmission of ideas between teachers and students and the tricky notion that our good side might not necessarily be our best side after all.
Beyond the small group of cinephiles already familiar with Bozon’s more-than-slightly askew worldview, the film’s commercial prospects hinge on star Isabelle Huppert, whose name might put a few more butts in seats after her Oscar nomination for Elle. That said, her previous collaboration with the director, 2013’s crazy crime comedy Tip Top, incidentally also based on a British novel transposed to France, didn’t exactly set records in the sales department. Mrs. Hyde, too, might be a little too weird again to convince more conventional distributors of foreign art house titles to sign on the dotted line.
Actor and occasional director Bozon wrote the screenplay with his regular collaborator and partner, Axelle Ropert, who is also a director in her own right (her The Apple of My Eye, which Bozon co-wrote, also premiered in competition at Locarno). The uniqueness of their universe comes from the constant and, at first sight, startling juxtaposition of dreamy cinema-history influences — screwball comedy and film noir must both be big in the Bozon-Ropert household — and biting and very contemporary social commentary. In the case of Hyde, we can add the basic plot of a Gothic novel as well as those awful inspirational-teacher movies to the mix. The resulting concoction isn’t always smooth but it’s certainly very distinctive.
Huppert plays Madame Gequil — pronounced à la française, of course — a mousy teacher at a technical high school in one of the working-class suburbs of Paris, where most of the kids are from an immigrant background. Her doting househusband, Mr. Gequil (Jose Garcia), thinks the world of her, even though she rarely eats more than a forkful of his lovingly prepared dinners (in a hilarious running gag, she secretly feeds the rest to a neighbor’s dogs). Even though she’s been teaching for over 30 years, Madame Gequil still hasn’t quite cracked the code of keeping order during her lessons and she tends to retreat into her shell when her students take over one of her classes. This is perhaps why she thinks the kids are “too immature to touch the machines,” as she explains during a student-council session, but this has the unfortunate side effect of reducing her physics classes to boring theoretical exposés, which in turn makes her students even more restless and unruly.
One of her charges is Malik (Adda Senani), who needs a walker because of a birth defect and who’s thus something of an outsider or underdog like her. After a series of unfortunate events, he becomes something of a special project for Gequil, who in the meantime has been hit by lightning in her private laboratory (why a high-school science teacher has one or why it’s in a shipping container in a parking lot are typically left unexplained). The transformation is a radical one, especially at night, as Madame Gequil lights up like embers roaring back to life after a renewed supply of oxygen (the special effects are relatively low-fi). She also becomes so hot she can burn things, which makes her a potential danger for those she encounters as she sleepwalks around the neighborhood at night.
Though the film plays with the two opposing identities of Gequil and her nocturnal alter ego, Madame Hyde, the film isn’t really interested in the psychology of her character (or any of the others). Indeed, like in Bozon’s other films, character development is practically absent, with the director instead exploiting the situations generated by the perfunctory plot for his wacky brand of chuckle-inducing comedy or to delve into the material’s subtext. The latter here explores the transmission of knowledge between the privileged and less privileged (intellectually as well as in terms of class); x-rays how inexperienced people deal with authority and shows how less self-confident people tend to get shoved aside even if they are more knowledgeable or in a nominal position of power. Bozon also paints a picture of a contemporary French high school that’s at once recognizable (the students look and act like realistically) and off-the-wall (the latter also through the establishment’s loony director, played to outlandish perfection by Romain Duris in oversized, pastel-colored suits and a decidedly unflattering, asymmetrical haircut).
Mrs. Hyde would make for a perfect double bill with Things to Come, Mia Hansen-Love’s recent and somber, if not necessarily dark, drama in which Huppert played a philosophy teacher, as here she’s a woman of science who only believes in advancement through empirical proof (in that sense, it feels appropriate that Madame Gequil’s life has been radically transformed through a freak meteorological phenomenon rather than any kind of inspirational self-betterment). The two films offer two very different takes on what teachers can achieve and how their private and professional lives may intersect.
It’s hard to talk about acting in the traditional sense here, as evoking emotions isn’t Bozon’s primary aim. Huppert certainly seems to relish the opportunity to play someone practically invisible and spectacularly unspectacular. She’s also very convincing when her character gets high on scientific explanations, clearly her real raison d’etre. All Madame Gequil needs to do is to figure out a way to communicate her fiery enthusiasm for her chosen field in ways that don’t involve literally burning people to the ground.
Production companies: Les Films Pelleas, Frakas Productions, Arte France
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Romain Duris, Jose Garcia, Adda Senani, Guillaume Verdier, Patricia Barzyk, Pierre Leon, Jamel Barbouche
Director: Serge Bozon
Screenplay: Serge Bozon, Axelle Ropert, freely adapted from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde by R.L. Stevenson
Producers: David Thion, Philippe Martin
Director of photography: Celine Bozon
Production designer: Laurie Colson
Costume designer: Delphine Caposella
Editor: Francois Quiquere
Music: Benjamin Esdraffo
Casting: Stephane Batut, Mohamed Belhamar, Emmanuel Thomas
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Competition)
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