2018, NR, 95 min. Directed by Serge Bozon. Starring Isabelle Huppert, Romain Duris, José Garcia, Adda Senani.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 25, 2018
A loose take on Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, this French film is more likely to remind you of Jerry Lewis’ The Nutty Professor than Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel about good and evil. Here the central character, Mrs. Marie Géquil (notice how the pronunciation of this unusual surname sounds like Jekyll), who is played by the ever-amazing Isabelle Huppert, is also a teacher, although during her transformation she turns into a spectral white light that burns things and people, instead of a goofy Lothario like Lewis’ Buddy Love. Marie also discovers a newfound confidence, which allows her to finally become a respected and successful physics instructor to her teenage vocational-school students.
The premise is terrific, as is the first third of the movie, which establishes Mrs. Géquil’s ineptitude in the classroom. Her students openly ridicule her and pay her no mind when she speaks, and her colleagues are at a loss to prevent her self-sabotage. Marie’s supportive househusband (Garcia) buttresses his wife with encouraging words of support at night. The first half-hour is a showcase for Huppert’s peerless gifts, as she melds pathetic, comic, repressed, and prejudiced attributes into her character of the inept instructor. Proceedings take a dive into vaguer territory, however, when she’s struck by lightning while working alone one stormy night in her lab (which looks like a prefab shipping container). Her experiments with heat and electricity transform her, and she roams the streets, scorching what she perceives to be society’s ills. She also takes under her wing her previously reviled student Malik (Senani), an Arab immigrant who also has a serious physical disability.
Serge Bozon’s film (his second starring Huppert) loses the thread of Marie’s personal transformation in favor of making Mrs. Hyde a discourse on the French pedagogical system, one that sharply divides academic pursuits from vocational. The film’s science-fiction elements fail to engage our eyes or minds. In her glowing form, Marie’s face is still recognizable, and her actions are ill-defined. Bozon seems to be using the Jekyll and Hyde scenario as a tool to torch the French school system, and maybe his metaphor loses some heat this side of the Atlantic. However, when you place an actor as singular as Huppert in a lead role, it seems foolish to do anything to obscure her brilliance. (As the fatuous school principal, Romain Duris also adds precise and amusing notes.) Even though Mrs. Hyde loses the trees for the forest, any movie starring Huppert (Elle, The Ceremony) is radiant, and it should be evident that tossing in a special effect or a message will be superfluous.