Wednesday, September 27, 2017

NYFF ’17: Mrs. Hyde

Despite her titular surname, the nocturnal alter-ego of Marie Géquil (sound it out) is more like an impersonal, fiery monster in the tradition of the H-Man than a down-and-dirty Victorian ripper. She doesn’t get a lot of breaks, but her mutation still has transformative effects for her Jekyll persona in Serge Bozon’s Mrs. Hyde, which screens as a Main Slate selection of the 55th New York Film Festival.

For most festival patrons, the casting of Isabelle Huppert as Madame Géquil is all they need to know. The fact that it is also a loose reworking of Robert Louis Stevenson is hopefully a bonus, but we are really talking loose here—like those pants need a belt and suspenders, plus some gathers round the cuffs.

Despite thirty years of experience, Madame Géquil finds herself on probation due to her ineffectual classroom manner. Teaching physics in a distressed urban technical school is not an easy task—and her openly hostile students do not make it any easier. Unlike the hypocritically unctuous principal, she has no truck with the soft bigotry of low expectations, but her refusal to dumb it down only increases her class’s antipathy. Than one fateful day, while Madame Géquil is performing an experiment, a lightning bolt from out of the blue strikes the school’s laboratory (a refurbished shipping container).

Suddenly, Madame Géquil has more confidence and appetite by day, but she sleepwalks by night. Eventually, she starts transforming into a Human Torch like figure that preys on the thugs running wild in the nearby projects. This two-pronged attack will help her finally reach Malik, her worst tormentor in class, who turns out to have an unsuspected aptitude for electrical engineering.

Although there is a thimble full of genre business in Mrs. Hyde, it is more an educator’s trials and tribulations, much in the tradition of The Class or Dangerous Minds, but it is darker and more fatalistic. It also has Huppert, who is terrific. Everyone seems to think she is playing against type here, but the truth is, you can see all the too-quiet intensity and barely contained resentment she has always conveyed so vividly. If you tipped her Géquil over, she might shatter.

As Malik, Adda Senani is a natural who looks like he really attends Arthur Rimbaud Technical School and hates every minute of it. He is a genuine discovery, but Romain Duris’s outrageously flamboyant, bang-flipping turn as the serpentine principal will really burn itself onto your corneas. Unfortunately, José Garcia’s Pierre Géquil is rather lightweight and inconsequential.

Mrs. Hyde is probably just good enough to satisfy Huppert’s admirers, but not chaotic enough to satiate Jekyll and Hyde buffs. Huppert and Duris certainly strut their stuff, even while pointedly critiquing French public education. It is an interesting, sometimes ironically amusing film, but not a knock-out punch. Recommended for fans of Huppert and patrons of French cinema, Mrs. Hyde screens this Friday (9/29) at Alice Tully Hall and Sunday (10/1) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYFF.