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.