Throughout her long and illustrious career, Isabelle Huppert has never shied away from playing dysfunctional female characters whose near-fetishistic penchant for torrent displays of emotion are often grounded in the psychosexual. From Michael Haneke’s Piano Teacher to Paul Verhoeven’s 2016 hit Elle, and to a lesser extent Catherine Breillat’s Abuse of Weakness, Huppert has breathed life into fictional heroines who aren’t afraid to plumb the primal depths of their psyche and tap into a raw visceral vein, one whose compulsions are physically externalized through palpable, uninhibited and draining throes of ecstasy and agony. Whether she’s playing a piano teacher with macabre sexual fixations, an elusive and discomfiting video game developer or an emotionally dependent film director, Huppert seems to welcome the opportunity to play layered characters whose sadomasochistic tendencies are rich with Freudian subtext. In fact, the veteran actress has mastered the art of inhabiting roles that embody the human id laid bare, playing characters that are at once obsessive and gripping, steely and vulnerable. All of which makes her transformation into Mrs. Hyde in director Serge Bozon’s new absurdist film somewhat tepid, for the character never fully taps into its literary predecessor’s maniacal id, and the same goes for Huppert’s unparalleled range.
Loosely adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Madame Hyde only tangentially recalls the classic 19th century novella, insofar as it concerns a scientifically minded protagonist who undergoes a considerable and consequential metamorphosis. It is for this reason that Bozon’s deadpan comedy marks somewhat of a sober detour — though not a full departure — for Huppert, who in this film operates within a more reserved register that never reaches the same fever-pitch crescendo as her previous roles, yet she still affords her character a compelling and uncompromising fortitude. Huppert plays Marie Géquil, a rather timid yet very bright physics teacher at a technical high school whose teaching methods and genuine, eager desire to enrich her students’ education go unappreciated, at the very least. No matter what Madame Géquil does, she can never catch a break, and her efforts are endlessly met with ridicule and contempt from colleagues, but most especially her rowdy students. She quickly takes a liking to a handicapped young man named Malik, for whom Madame Géquil sees a great deal of potential. She knows he possesses a strong aptitude for absorbing information, so all Géquil wants to do is teach him how to think and argue critically — connect all the dots, essentially. The problem is that Malik has no desire to learn, and his disdain for school shows in the daily aggravation he gives his teacher during class, playing up his role as chief agitator.
Though seemingly insignificant, the conspicuous ethnic diversity of Géquil’s class — Malik himself is of Arab descent — injects a subtle layer of social commentary into the film that provides context for these students’ raucous behavior. To these marginalized young adults, Géquil represents the face of an institution that has let them down. As a result, she becomes the unwitting target of their collective outrage against a problematic system. Bozon reinforces this commentary throughout by periodically visiting the public housing projects where several resident dropouts gather to let off steam in the form of rap, with Malik taking a particular interest in joining this hardened group and rapping alongside them. From this perspective, Malik’s relentless defiance becomes more sympathetic: feeling singled out by his handicap and ethnicity, he just wants to belong, and being the class clown comes with the social perks of attention and approval.
As much as Madame Géquil finds reprieve in the tranquil domesticity shared with her kind and doting stay-at-home husband, come morning the cycle of work-induced dread and frustration begins yet again. That is, until the day she gets struck by lightning during a thunderstorm, and undergoes a transformation that cracks the shell of her placid existence and disposition. Finding an inner strength that empowers her to be more confident, inspired and (sexually) voracious, Géquil slowly assumes the persona of her Mrs. Hyde alter ego, and the physical aspect of her metamorphosis is rendered in the form of a golden aura that radiates throughout her body as she roams the streets at night in a trance-like state. Resembling a sleepwalking jack-o-lantern, Bozon’s vision of Hyde’s appearance reflects the internal change her character experiences, and there is a certain dream logic to the magical realism of these scenes. Unlike the mousy Géquil, Hyde is an inferno of self-assertion and purpose, and the ember glow emanating from her is that of confidence and competence. And in a nice touch, Bozon’s aesthetic rendering of Géquil’s transformation recalls an early lecture she gives on potential and kinetic energy: like a lit Bunsen burner, Géquil’s dormant rage — her “potential energy” — is transformed into both a figurative and literal thermal energy, by way of her newfound authority, and in her molten body heat that sets ablaze everything it touches.
At first, Géquil’s nascent abilities enable her to become a more effective teacher and communicator, and she learns ways to connect with her students and engage their academic curiosities. She even manages to stimulate Malik’s scientific interests, and he takes advantage of his privileged access to the physics lab during after school hours to work on personal research projects — even becoming a tutor to his crush. Through Géquil and Malik’s parallel arcs — as the former becomes a better teacher through Madame Hyde, Malik becomes a better student — the film becomes not only a character study, but a parable about society’s attitudes towards learning and the value of receiving an education.
Yet as Madame Géquil further slips into Mrs. Hyde’s volcanic mindset, she finds herself unable to control her increasingly dangerous and destructive powers. In a recent interview, Bozon said this internal Géquil v. Hyde conflict illustrates the “interplay between good and evil” that exists in everyone, and nowhere is this struggle more profoundly rendered than in a heartbreaking and rambling monologue Géquil delivers to her class late in the film. Stammering and barely able to stand, her nearly incoherent speech encapsulates her character’s struggles as an educator, and the film’s view of the solitary nature of teaching and learning. And despite some uneven narrative patches and a few dangling subplots, as the individual stories of teacher and pupil come full circle, Madame Hyde crystallizes its views about the absurd limitations in trying to communicate the abstract gift of knowledge. If nothing else, Géquil’s breakdown cautions viewers to consider the point at which academic passion and the thirst for knowledge becomes obsessive and self-destructive — and Bozon deftly communicates his belief that although personal transformation is often a noble means to success and enlightenment, one can never predict how far these changes will ultimately go.
Demitra “Demi” Kampakis (@DemionFilm) is a Cinema Studies major who graduated with a Bachelors of Science degree in Biology. She is a Brooklyn-based neurotic film fiend with a soft spot for any auteur-driven psychological fare. As the current film editor for Posture Magazine, Demi has also written for Indiewire and Film Comment, and she uses her spare time to manage her own website Cinefiles of a Cinephile.