During Mrs. Hyde’s closing credits, Serge Bozon notes that the film is a loose adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor could just as easily have been the writer-director’s inspiration. The film largely takes place inside a technical high school and centers on the relationship between an instructor and student. Marie Géquil (Isabelle Huppert) is a science teacher who goes about her daily life with a spastic nervousness, moving as if a cattle prod were zapping her into reluctant action even before a freak lab accident transforms her into the composed, literally glowing, and fire-starting Mrs. Hyde.
Mrs. Géquil has a soft spot for Malik (Adda Senani), a disruptive but clever student, giving him private lessons and access to her lab so that he can perform experiments at his leisure. She’s strangely protective of him, but Huppert’s half-caring, half-insidious portrayal of Mrs. Géquil’s looming presence and private tempestuousness hints at just how much damage the teacher could (and will) inflict on him. Though passionate, Mrs. Géquil is deliriously ill fit for her job and terrible at maintaining a classroom, despite her 35 years of service. The school’s principal, played by Romain Duris, is a hip, over-honest bureaucrat who wouldn’t feel out of place as a stand-in for The Office’s Michael Scott, while Mrs. Géquil’s husband, Pierre (José Garcia), is an absurdly genteel stay-at-home cook and piano player.
At Mrs. Hyde’s best, all of these personalities help Bozon to put the entirety of the French school system on trial. Here, a high school’s administrative practices are so byzantine that no one seems to know exactly what they should be doing or how. Although the film never allows itself to be quite so freewheeling as Bozon’s earlier work, and pales as a result, one of its pleasures is how giddily it suggests its characters finding release from the bureaucratic rigmarole in minor though often inane ways. The act of smelling appears to accomplish this for many a character; the visceral, intimate gesture is practiced with curiously intense vigor in the film, chiefly by the principal, whose literal sniffing of Mrs. Géquil for information is a humorous take on the relationship between supervisors and their subordinates.
Bozon’s monster story is imbued with his idiosyncratic visual and comedic style. Shot by his longtime collaborator and sister, Céline Bozon, Mrs. Hyde is tinged even in daylight with crepuscular tones, and the quick-cutting, lean editing gives the film a peculiarly frenetic energy, putting the audience in a position of feeling like they’re chasing after the constantly evolving narrative. But as Mrs. Géquil transforms into a competent instructor, and her alter-ego grows in strength, Mrs. Hyde becomes increasingly more sinister—a tone that rubs jarringly against the madcap satire of the film’s first half.
Soon the film’s plot is sputtering all over the place, with Mrs. Hyde going around and lighting Arab youths in her neighborhood on fire. Like a humorless riff on Kathleen Turner’s Serial Mom character, she seems to attack people for their breach of what Mrs. Géquil might just sympathetically chalk up to poor behavior (her first victim is a truant rapper). But if these attacks are intended as jokes, they’re too tragic to be funny, and if they’re meant as satire, they’re too fumblingly contextualized to be understood as such.
In the past, Bozon’s has revealed a sophisticated grasp of genre, an ability to craft films that are playful even when grappling with heavy subject matter. Tip Top, a satirical look at the state of the French police force, dealt with police corruption and racial tensions in France with no small amount of intelligence. Here, the result is just sloppy. The film’s segregated world hints at a town’s (and country’s) racial tensions without actually examining them; Mrs. Hyde’s murderous excursions simply read as petty revenge directed at Mrs. Géquil’s difficult students. Abandoning its initially playful upbraiding of a school’s ludicrous administrative practices, the film quickly begins to revel in cruelty, and as such the depiction of a white woman terrorizing an Arab neighborhood ultimately leaves an offensive taste in one’s mouth.