Isabelle Huppert excels at playing tough, individualistic women, but she can just as easily dial it down for more fragile performances, so it was only a matter of time before she landed a role that let her have it both ways. In Serge Bozon’s peculiar comedy “Mrs. Hyde,” she’s a beleaguered French schoolteacher who gets struck by lightning and taps into the much more powerful, vindictive side of her personality lurking beneath the surface.
It’s a fascinating role in an uneven but frequently insightful movie riddled with amusing asides and enigmatic developments, partly because Huppert doesn’t undergo a radical transformation. Instead, she subtly finds herself at war with her inner confidence, and it’s often hard to tell which side has the upper hand.
“Mrs. Hyde” has been billed as a loose adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and it’s certainly the more enticing interpretation of the material to reach movie screens in 2017; the other, a dull raging maniac played by Russell Crowe in Universal’s misbegotten “The Mummy,” implied the assumption that the idea of a bipolar scientist was still an exciting concept. For his fifth feature, Bozon doesn’t actually import the material beyond using it as a vague reference point. The title is more of a symbolic gesture toward a society that represses intelligence until it self-destructs, and in that regard, the movie couldn’t be more timely.
Much of “Mrs. Hyde” unfolds as an off-kilter tale of a teacher plagued with hellaciously disobedient students, which puts many of its scenes in the tradition of “Half Nelson” and “The Class” as it generates sympathy around a soft-spoken instructor struggling to help rebellious teens absorb some life lessons. Bozon, however, injects his own specific tone into the material.
The director tends to veer off on tangents and relish quirky exchanges that can shift from amusing to downbeat at unexpected moments; his stories are built around distinctive deadpan cadences reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismaki, with topical undertones. His last effort, “Tip Top,” was a whimsical slapstick comedy folded into the confines of a murder mystery that also channeled the racial politics of modern-day France. In “Mrs. Hyde,” Huppert plays mild-mannered science teacher Marie Gèquil, whose foul-mouthed students heckle and denigrate her classroom lectures at every opportunity. Notably, the blend of ethnicities among her students suggest a collective rage against a repressive system in which she has become an unwitting target.
At school, Marie can’t catch a break; even the teachers and an amusingly self-centered young principal (Romain Duris) assail her for attempting to talk back when confronted by the student council about her teaching methods. Her only respite comes from her relaxed evenings at home with her low-key pianist husband (José Garcia), but his soft-spoken demeanor hardly does much to shield her from the daily assaults she faces at work. No amount of practical overtures can mollify her students’ resistance. She takes a particular interest in the handicapped Malik (Adda Senani), seeing potential for him to excel with her curriculum, and faces crude dismissal: “What do you know? You’re old!”
While science may not empower Marie in the classroom, it soon redeems her in another, more extraordinary fashion. After hours, she wanders the streets, glowing with a fiery energy that has lethal consequences. But that doesn’t mean the movie takes some abrupt turn into suburban horror; instead, Marie’s late-night excursions become a dreamlike encapsulation of the simmering anger she otherwise can’t express.
This mystical element doesn’t totally coalesce into a fully realized idea, but it’s a fascinating visual device that elevates the movie’s oddball tone to surreal heights. Meanwhile, Bozon’s quirky script manages to toy with profound asides even as it satirizes the inanity of the high school ecosystem. After one student’s death, the principal calls for “the first moment of silence of my career…I want it to be perfect.” That’s about as deep as his observations get. In “Mrs. Hyde,” the sheer superficiality of the world surrounding Marie becomes the core of a melancholic character study in which her own noble sense of purpose is willfully ignored by the establishment.
But she still manages to make a difference. Reaching out to Malik, she eventually begins to tap into his scientifically-minded sensibilities. While a prolonged geometry lesson between the pair has strained metaphorical implications, the nature of their relationship injects the movie with a touching sense of purpose beyond its stranger digressions and injecting the movie with a profound sense of purpose.
Marie’s final meltdown features a sad, frantic monologue that allows Huppert to embody her character’s internal conflicts in vivid physical terms. It’s followed by a provocative conclusion that brings the overarching themes full circle and suggests that Marie’s struggle isn’t a solitary one. Smart people have it rough, the movie suggests, but that doesn’t mean they won’t stop fighting to survive.
“Mrs. Hyde” premiered at the 2017 Locarno Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.