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'Mrs. Hyde' Seeks, But Does Not Find, Coherence

Marie Géquil (Isabelle Huppert) is a teacher despised by her students and peers alike — until a lighting strike unleashes a new persona.
The Orchard
Marie Géquil (Isabelle Huppert) is a teacher despised by her students and peers alike — until a lighting strike unleashes a new persona.

Among Isabelle Huppert's many impressively vehement roles are several murderers, a mother who seduces her son, and the abortionist who was the last woman France ever sent to the guillotine. So the first joke of the intriguing but bewilderingly scattered Mrs. Hyde (Madame Hyde) is director Serge Bozon's casting of the anything-goes actress as a shy, awkward schoolteacher.

Her name is not Hyde but Jekyll — or, rather, Marie Géquil. She lives with her clueless, piano-playing house-husband (Jose Garcia) in a pleasant suburban home within walking distance of the shabby projects that shelter most of the students who attend Lycee Arthur Rimbaud.

Géquil teaches physics to the high school's vocational students, most of whom are male and of Arab or African descent. The mild-mannered teacher seems to exemplify the gentle feminine under assault by rowdy masculinity, as well as La Belle France swamped by the immigrant tide — both ideas that are presented and then barely developed.

While working in her lab one night, Géquil is jolted by a lightning bolt. She transforms, but not into a brute like the one in Robert Louis Stevenson's "strange case." Instead, the teacher becomes somewhat more assertive. She trades in her pastel blouses for brighter ones — costume design is vital to this tale — and forms an alliance with Malik (Adda Senani). The student, overcompensating for his use of a walker, was previously her chief classroom tormenter.

Géquil's bond with Malik doesn't serve much of a narrative purpose, and seems mostly designed to offset the impression that Mrs. Hyde has an anti-minority agenda. Malik can be educated and thus redeemed, unlike the macho, school-hating rappers his teacher wants him to spurn.

Géquil's metamorphosis is subtle, and is registered mostly by the reactions of her pupils and supervisors. Bozon and co-scripter Axelle Ropert must have decided the change was not enough to sustain the slight story, so they added another one. Late at night, Géquil becomes Mrs. Hyde, a glowing figure of raw energy who prowls the area and electrocutes creatures who cross her path.

The Mrs. Hyde persona is a showcase for the special-effects crew, not Huppert. The electrified woman is a crackling but mute presence without any discernible personality. She does occasionally kill, but the motivation — like so much in this underdone scenario — is unclear. If Mrs. Hyde embodies Mme. Géquil's submerged antisocial urges, they're rather dull ones.

Mrs. Hyde is not a horror movie. In fact, it's sort of a comedy, but with just one humorous character. The lycee's principal is a ludicrously self-involved buffoon with an asymmetrical haircut and a vividly hued, matchy-matchy wardrobe. He's played by Romain Duris, which is another casting gag: The feral-looking actor is known for playing Hyde-like characters in such films as The Beat That My Heart Skipped .

Less a mash-up than a pile-on, Mrs. Hyde spends so much time on classroom activities that it sometimes resembles the many recent social dramas about working-class kids in France's school system. When not lampooning its more privileged characters or reducing bystanders to ash, the movie earnestly offers geometry lessons.

Yet what's lacking is composition, not mathematics. Mrs. Hyde has its keen moments, but it lacks a thesis. If it were a term paper, any conscientious teacher would send it back for a rewrite.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Jenkins reviews movies for NPR.org, as well as for , which covers the Washington, D.C., film scene with an emphasis on art, foreign and repertory cinema.