Madame Hyde (Mrs. Hyde) (NYFF 2017)

Madame Hyde (Mrs. Hyde) (2017)

There have been any number of adaptations of The Strange Case Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde over the years, veering between Freudian analysis and Social Darwinism in the 1931 and 1941 films, to the more subversive versions involving sexual mores and gender-bending in I, Monster and Hammer Studios’ Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. And no wonder: Stevenson’s novel raises questions about human psychosis and monstrosity, the desire to do “evil” in a way that escapes detection or even personal morality. So it’s a reasonable story to inspire Serge Bozon’s Madame Hyde, a story about a science teacher at a technical school who obtains some very strange powers.

Madame Hyde stars Isabelle Huppert as Mrs. Gequil, a timid woman who teaches physics to underperforming students at a technical high school. She’s unable to control her classroom, harassed by students and mocked by other teachers and the principal (Romain Duris, mugging for the camera). The only person who appreciates her at all is her husband Pierre (Jose Garcia), and the only place where she seems to find any solace is her technical laboratory, where she works on unspecified experiments involving electricity. One night, lightning strikes her laboratory and alters Mrs. Gequil forever, providing her with a “spark” that eventually transforms her into a glowing woman of fire. She begins to control her classroom and challenge her students, especially her most problematic pupil Malik (Adda Senani), slowly transforming into the teacher she has always wanted to be.

Madame Hyde is a difficult film, for it shifts wildly in tone and subject and, at times, seems to be trying to make a point without making it in a coherent manner. The ideas behind it are solid enough, though they’ve been done before, but the occasional bouts of wry comedy and absurdism conflict with the serious philosophical underpinnings. What has happened to Mrs. Gequil and how it transforms her isn’t terribly clear, but it’s a lack of clarity that indicates a simultaneous lack of direction beneath it. This isn’t a film that begs to be understood or to challenge the viewer, but that rather seems to be concealing its own lack of coherence through sudden cuts and jumps in narrative. I was willing to go with Madame Hyde for much of its runtime, but at some point I realized that it wasn’t going to provide any solid resolution. There’s certainly some commentary going on here – Mrs. Gequil is faced with a group of capable but impoverished students who remain intellectually unchallenged by their work. All the teachers and officials are white, most of the students Arabic and Algerian and living in housing projects, but if there’s a social commentary at work here, I can’t figure it out. Those elements, so rich in themselves, are never really explored. Instead we have random moments that include charring two dogs, Mrs. Gequil ripping her shirt off, and an extended shot of Mr. Gequil sadly watching his wife nearing the end of the film. What is the goal? What is the point?

Unsurprisingly, Huppert is (literally) luminous, her shifts in personality believable and moving. She commands the screen in every scene, and is quite well matched by Senani’s Malik, who becomes Mrs. Gequil’s biggest challenge, grappling with his evident intellectual curiosity, the limitations brought on by a disability, and his anger at his academic and social situation. One of the best scenes of the film is between the two of them, alone in a lab, as Mrs. Gequil finally learns how to teach her most intelligent and recalcitrant student by delving into a deceptively simple physics problem that she asks him to solve not by theoretics and equations, but by practical logic. The conflict and chemistry between them keeps the film afloat, and stops it from being a total wash. But it’s still not enough.

Madame Hyde has so many good elements that it’s hard to dismiss it out of hand. It doesn’t work; it’s messy and lacks clarity, but there’s still something there at the core, if only Bozon’s script could get at it. It’s a frustrating film, failing to make enough of the undoubted talent of its cast, the depth of its philosophy, and the quirks of its use of adaptation. The film never quite works, yet I still desperately want it to.

Madame Hyde is currently at NYFF 2017.

Professor Marston And The Wonder Women (2017)

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)

It seems that 2017 is the year of Wonder Woman. With the spectacular success of Patty Jenkins’s version of the iconic superhero, now seems as good a time as ever to examine the past and future of the character, what she means to female representation onscreen, and to feminism at large. To this end, Angela Robinson’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women goes back to the man who created Diana Prince, and the women who inspired her. It also successfully gives the lie to any dude-bro masturbatory fantasies that claim that Wonder Woman is, by design, a thing to be objectified, ogled, and fetishized. There is so much more to her, and so much more to those behind her creation.

Robinson’s film deals in far more detail with Marston’s personal life than it does with the actual creation and popularization of the character that made him famous. The film opens with the burning of Wonder Woman comics as Marston (Luke Evans) faces off against a “decency panel,” led by Josette Frank (Connie Britton). As Marston defends his creation against accusations of perversion, the film flashes back to the late 1920s. Marston is employed at Harvard and teaching classes in psychology at sister college Radcliffe alongside his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall). The pair have an intense, combative relationship, made more intense by Marston’s immediate attraction to his new student Olive (Bella Heathcote), the niece of Margaret Sanger, who becomes the couple’s lab assistant. Over the course of a fraught relationship, the trio wind up falling in love, exploring BDSM, and constructing an unorthodox and loving home life.

Olive at first appears to be a wide-eyed ingenue, excited to be working with a well-known pair of academics, but gradually becomes essential to the lives of the Marstons. Marston and Elizabeth have invented a version of the lie-detector, but it’s only with Olive that they are able to discover a way to get a base reading. They treat her almost as a guinea pig, observing her interactions with men, with her sorority sisters, and with themselves as a way of studying human psychology and giving credence to DISC theory (a concept involving the interplay of dominance, inducement, submission, and compliance). But soon Olive enforces her own right to have a voice in the relationship, and the pattern of sexual attraction and jealousy develops as it becomes increasingly clear that the three of them have fallen in love with one another.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women manages to depict the depth and complexity of a polyamorous relationship without making it into a puerile act of titillation. Much of this has to do with the gaze of the camera, which eroticizes all three of the leads without making them at all voyeuristic. The gaze here has never been more feminine, rejecting voyeurism for engaged pleasure–yes, even in the BDSM scenes. Robinson’s camera avoids titillating glimpses of breasts or asses, instead dwelling on the complexity of emotions being exchanged among three very different but complementary people. None of this is told exclusively from Marston’s perspective, and there is never the sense that the two women are performing roles for his pleasure. They are all performing for each other’s pleasure, changing sexual and gender roles as it suits them at the time, indulging bondage fantasies that echo the Marstons’ psychological theories.

There are so many places where this film might have stumbled, so many opportunities of turning Marston into a letch, Elizabeth into a harridan, or Olive into a seductive ingenue, sacrificing character for objectification. But the strength of the script, the trenchant gaze of Robinson’s camera, and the performances of the actors means that there is no moment left untapped of potential. Professor Marston creates believable characters enmeshed in a set of contradictory emotions and desires that are difficult to navigate without harming others, yet likewise cannot be denied. Rebecca Hall is the standout, mining her acerbic characterization of Elizabeth for depth of feeling, a woman accustomed to power and domination thrown through a loop by her growing love for Olive and her continued love for Marston.

Wonder Woman doesn’t actually come into the film until quite late in the proceedings, although comic book imagery pops up every once in a while to indicate where Marston will eventually get his character from. The basic idea is that Wonder Woman/Diana Prince is an amalgam of Olive and Elizabeth, what Marston considers to be the perfect woman. Yet there is never a sense that he has simply mined them for their characteristics to construct a fantasy. Rather he wants to put everything that they are into her, to express through her the heights to which women can and should aspire. There’s a healthy dose of sexual “perversion” here, of course – much of it coming from the trio’s increasing interest in bondage – but that is less important to Wonder Woman than her complex relationship to female power and, most importantly, love.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women stumbles in places, with pacing and plot beginning to lag in the second half of the film. Having a set up a dynamic set of relationships, Robinson doesn’t seem quite certain what to do to bring together the disparate elements that are supposed to inform Wonder Woman’s creation. Marston, Elizabeth, and Olive create their own polyamorous utopia within modern society, but the push and pull of the relationships, especially when social mores threaten, begins to suffer from emotional whiplash that grows more annoying than heartbreaking at times. The use of the decency panel as a sort of interstitial narration feels like a forced reminder that this whole story is really about the creation of Wonder Woman, even though that’s probably the least interesting element of the narrative.

But for its momentary weaknesses, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women has so much to recommend it that it’s hard to fault it for occasionally lacking in proper pace or a somewhat confusing plot arc. At the heart of the narrative is a story about three people deeply in love with each other, attempting to navigate fluid sexual and gender roles at a time when those roles were rigidly, even violently, enforced. That so few films are able to depict human sexuality with such eroticism without objectification speaks more to the failings of modern cinema than anything else. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is unique of its kind. God, how I wish there were more films like it.

Swann In Love (1984)

Swann in Love (1984)

Whether it ultimately works as a film or not, props must be given to director Volker Schlondorff for even attempting an adaptation of a portion of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, the first volume of the French author’s endless epic In Search of Lost Time. Schlondorff’s film specifically deals with the romance between aesthete Charles Swann and his mistress Odette de Crecy, the story of which only takes up about half of Proust’s first volume. Which is just as well – Swann in Love is the most plot-driven part of the book, with the most action and intense emotions. How to translate Proust’s languid sentences to the cinematic medium is another challenge, and one which Schlondorff but imperfectly captures.

Jeremy Irons is Charles Swann, an aesthete bachelor in fin-de-siecle France who spends his days going to elegant parties, hobnobbing with aristocrats, and pining for his mistress Odette (Ornella Muti). Odette is a source of intense suffering for Swann, who experiences bouts of jealousy over her relationships with everyone else (some justified, some not) to the degree that he follows her to parties and the opera, and even heads to brothels to inquire of her previous life. It’s not so much that Swann is horrified by Odette’s past – there’s no question that she has had a multitude of lovers, male and female – but rather wants to be certain what her past even was, so that he can understand it and, in some way, claim it as a part of himself. He refuses to take her assurances as fact, yet cannot find solid ground to cling to, pursuing an image rather than a woman. Swann wants to define Odette only in relation to himself, driving sudden wedges between them, then torturing himself with thoughts of what might have been.

Swann’s own social position further complicates his relationship with Odette. His drive to be accepted means that he can’t really marry her without jeopardizing his friendships with people like the Duchess of Guermantes (Fanny Ardant, underused). Swann is himself Jewish, as remarked by several characters at the start of the film, putting a further blot on his social escutcheon. Swann’s wobbly social position is the undercurrent that runs through the film, as he’s apparently rejected by Odette’s “lower” friends the Verdurins, while not quite of the proper social class to be more than a hanger-on of the Guermantes.

Jeremy Irons captures Swann’s haunted, ephemeral beauty and obsessive nature, as he pursues Odette with a condescension and a passion both maddening and erotic. Equally strong, but underused, is Alain Delon, applying his waning beauty to a curiously sympathetic performance as the Baron de Charlus, an aging dandy whose world-wise cynicism and pursuit of aesthetic pleasures conceals a basically decent nature. Odette, meanwhile, is a venal and occasionally annoying young woman and the film conjures little sympathy for her relationship with a nearly violently obsessive man, either in script or in Muti’s performance. So much time and energy is spent on focalizing through Swann that the basics of his relationship with Odette – and the essential unfairness with which he treats her – become obscured within his obsession.

Like its main character, Swann in Love is a deeply aesthetic film, in love with the precise rendering of fin-de-siecle France and the placement of the social classes within it. Also like its main character, finding the soul beneath the aestheticism can be difficult, and Schlondorff’s camera, on occasion, seems to avoid humanizing the characters for fear of tainting their superficial perfection. The occasional flights of cinematic fancy, like the use of voiceover to render Swann’s ever-changing desires about Odette, seem to be attempts to depict the ephemeral nature of time and memory that was such a large part of Proust’s project. But because the central story is told in a fairly straight-forward manner, these momentary departures fall flat.

Swann in Love is an interesting film, very pretty to look at but without any desire to bring out the soul of its characters. It is inadequate as an adaptation – as I think just about any attempt at faithfully adapting Proust would be – but fulfills a good bit of its promise as a piece of cinema, deeply visual and pleasurable in its images. Fascinating, superficial, and ephemeral, it does manage to capture something of a lost world, a time and a place and a set of people who will eventually fade into memories before they vanish altogether.