An offbeat, fizzy farce that goes a little flat by the end, Serge Bozon’s hot-ticket Locarno premiere “Mrs. Hyde” drinks no potion, but nonetheless demonstrates a split personality. Half enjoyable, half frustrating, the film’s (extremely) loose basis on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” would seem to provide the perfect excuse to have the world-beating Isabelle Huppert swing from one end of her Grand-Canyon-sized range to the other. But Bozon’s oddly arrhythmic script then denies us that pleasure by imagining mousy milquetoast schoolteacher Mme Géquil’s powerful alter ego as either a doomsaying sleepwalker, or a glowy, ghostly, largely featureless special effect. And where Stevenson’s tortured hero got to indulge the unspeakable depravities his suppressed darker nature longed for, Bozon’s female version doesn’t get to have as much fun in her transformed state. As if watching a Bruce Banner who never fully Hulks out, we sadly just don’t get to witness Huppert ripping into the role of the selfish, voracious id-monster that the title promises.
Still, she is never less than a pleasure to watch, and for an actress who can radiate enough command to part a minor sea, it’s its own peculiar sort of challenge to see her negotiate the role of the “insignificant,” overwhelmed and ridiculed physics teacher in a vocational school in a rough suburb of Paris. And she is, of course, excellent — making Mme Géquil a birdlike, scuttling creature whose shrill entreaties for her rambunctious class’ attention only make the kids more derisive.
At home, her benignly affectionate but also cluelessly condescending “househusband” (José Garcia) cooks elaborate meals for her, most of which she covertly smuggles out to the neighbors’ dogs. But when she starts to change, and her appetite quickens, he immediately laments the difference: “Where is the delicate woman I married?” Of the many barbs the film slings, the ones that land on him, and on Romain Duris’ oleaginous headmaster — the other supposedly progressive male character — are among the cleverest.
But the gender-swap from the book is actually a slight red herring: This is not really Bozon investigating the idea of of a woman’s empowerment, via the unusual route of getting struck by lightning in the middle of an experiment and gaining weird nighttime abilities. As wackily absurdist as the film’s style is, drolly shot by Céline Bozon, accompanied by Benjamin Esdraffo’s tootling flute score and meticulously costumed by Delphine Capossela, its intentions are actually quite sober. With “Mrs. Hyde,” Bozon is most interested in critiquing the unfairness and inertia of the French school system, and in investigating what it really means to be a teacher. This unsexy remit is certainly well intentioned, but it does contribute to a sludgy, slower second half in which we sometimes get entire physics lessons laid out for us in real time.
Mme Géquil’s class is part of the “technical” school that is essentially quarantined from peers with better academic prospects “by the ministry,” bleats the headmaster (who is the film’s most consistently funny character, played with pro droll timing by MVP Duris). Aside from the two girls in the front row who complain about their teacher’s ineffectuality in prim, disapproving unison, the class is predominately male, and predominately non-white, with the roll call listing largely Arabic- and African-inflected surnames. The most ostracized kid, who is also Mme Géquil’s most assiduous tormentor, is Malik (Adda Senani), who walks with the aid of a frame due to a birth defect. But when Mme Géquil’s “accident” occurs, she starts to gain in confidence and in a sly nod to the standard “inspirational teacher” subgenre, she takes him under her wing, and he blossoms. Especially once Mme Hyde has discouraged him from hanging out with a local crew of school dropouts by, you know, killing one of them.
This is Bozon’s second collaboration with Huppert after the similarly uncategorizable genre mish-mash that was “Tip Top.” But as good as she is, she feels underserved by this material, especially its surprisingly moralistic ending, and by this style of filmmaking, in which so much that she could probably communicate through performance is writ large by the exaggerated tone. Of course, critiquing a farce for lack of nuance is a bit like castigating a pantomime cow for poor footwork in a pas de deux, but Bozon is striving for more than mere knockabout malarkey with “Mrs. Hyde.” At least, he seems to be, but perhaps he’s simply in two minds.