Madame Géquil (Isabelle Huppert) is powerless in the classroom. A particularly ineffective physics teacher, she thinks that the only way for teens to learn is to be told the theory, as using machines is way too advanced for them. This does not go down well with her high school pupils – they’re technical students, and in the school hierarchy are already seen as less capable.
Patronised and looked down on, they don’t take kindly to their teacher doing the same thing, even if in Marie Géquil’s case it’s coming from a place of supposed kindness rather than racism or institutional bias. Finding a temporary route out of their powerlessness, they torment her mercilessly – rude, aggressive, and mocking, they flick black ink on her pristine white blouse and call her to a school council to explain herself.
The headteacher (Romain Duris) offers Marie no support while remaining oblivious to his own failings. Flicking his floppy hair like a 90s boybander, he favours pastel-coloured shirts with matching ties, and 140 euro trainers, rather than actually supporting his teaching staff. He is, though, the source of much of the comedy in this rather bizarre film, an unsubtle foil to Marie’s transformation, which is actually a figuratively unflashy metamorphosis.
This is a very, very loose adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, another on my list of books I claimed to have read but secretly haven’t. And let me say right now that I’m actually not at all averse to reboots, or changing a protagonist from male to female, or relocating a hundred-year-old tale to a modern-day troubled, down-at-heel inner city estate, or indeed leaving out most of the story.
Marie herself is something of an enigma. For someone seen as so useless, disliked by pupils and staff alike, she is actually remarkably self-possessed, with a stoicism about her role within the school and her life. She is prone to flashes of anger but in the main she plods on, day after day, in her long pastel pleated skirts and pale blouses, her vibrant red curls the only lively thing about her.
Her househusband partner Pierre (Jose Garcia), a cuddly bearded and cheerful man, also doesn’t shy away from subtly putting her down, perhaps to bolster his own position. He happily points out that she has been a slow developer where teaching is concerned (she’s been in the job decades) while cooking her meals she clearly doesn’t like and which she surreptitiously feeds to next door’s dogs.
Most of her pupils are boys of colour, from poor estates, with only two girls Roxane and Angèle, both white, who sit together at the front of the class speaking in unison while monitoring Marie’s performance. Primly but openly critical of their teacher, their rudeness is as unpleasant to watch as the more obvious mocking commentary from the boys in the desks behind. Loudest of these is often Malik (Adda Senani, pitch perfect as he responds to those around him in endless attempts to fit in), a disabled teen who uses a walker to get around. Yet Marie still fights his corner, perhaps seeing in him another underdog.
Her eventual transformation into Madame Hyde is the result of – yes – a lighting strike, as she quietly loses herself in her physics experiments in her little portocabin laboratory. It’s a heat we see traversing her body like a thin vein of lava (intellectually her classroom advances may be quieter but her physical transformation is most definitely fiery).
Soon she’s melting ice at a market fish counter. Then the sleepwalking starts, first as herself, then transformed into an incandescently glowing white lady (one who bears a striking resemblance to Agnetha from ABBA). A street bench she sits on sparks as she rises and is next seen as a charred mess, and don’t even ask what happens to next door’s dogs.
But in the classroom things are looking up for Marie and her unruly pupils alike. Not overnight, but gradually, and it’s not that she now has a fiery temperament terrifying her charges into obedience.
Instead some spark has ignited within her, so her newly-found abilities to pass on the passion she has for her subject means her teaching improves and her lessons at last hold her pupils’ attention.
A school project to build a Faraday cage is interesting and – at testing time, when a pupil is put inside it while electricity fizzes around – delightfully frightening, as pupils wonder if Madame Hyde harbours ill-will for their previously vile treatment of Marie Géquil; and Malik in particular benefits from his teacher’s instructions not on what the answers might be, but how to find them for himself.
Huppert is wonderful, and even if her two characters don’t have much agency she still imbues them with growing passion and intensity. Though through them both runs a thread of bemusement, as outside forces mould her responses. She carries what is a slight tale (and beyond a red blouse and a bigger appetite Marie doesn’t really seem to have much fun in her new persona).
Indeed Huppert’s performance is so compelling that I felt I too could explain the scientific basics of Hyde’s arguments, though admittedly that didn’t last long (in my defence, Madame Hyde suggests taking a detour to the truth and I think I’m still on it).
The headteacher is divertingly funny, and it’s when he is instructed to think by Madame Hyde – and does so by mouthing the words silently – that it becomes clear that he is on the level of the teens in her class, just with more power.
While there’s little to connect it to Stevenson’s 19th century novella, in many ways Madame Hyde is a universal tale – there’s always something satisfying about a mouse that roars, and Madame Hyde is no exception. And events always spin out of control. It isn’t hubris though as despite her metamorphosis, Marie never actually has much traction over what is happening to her. She’s still at the mercy of other forces, and the outcomes of her interventions, while initially satisfying, don’t stay that way.
But at its heart Serge Bozon’s film is really about the neglect of young people, considered wasted and useless before they’ve even had a chance to get properly started in life – and at least the effect Madame Hyde has on her pupils, Malik in particular, makes them at last a force to be reckoned with.