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A Surge in the Classroom: Serge Bozon on Mrs. Hyde

Isabelle-Huppert-Madame-Hyde-1200x520

By Tom Ue.

Serge Bozon’s latest film Mrs. Hyde follows the plight of a science teacher at a technical school (Isabelle Huppert). Despite 35 years of committed service, Mrs. Géquil is largely unsuccessful in communicating with either her students or her colleagues; and she is supported by a well-meaning, but equally useless, principal (Romain Duris). All of this changes when she is struck by lightning and undergoes a substantial character transformation into the dangerous eponymous character. Mrs. Hyde is now available on Digital and On Demand formats; see http://radi.al/MrsHyde. In what follows, I discuss the film, its social commentary, and Mrs. Géquil’s transformation with director Bozon. Bozon makes movies, plays in movies, and writes about movies.

What a fascinating film! What encouraged you to make this adaptation of R. L. Stevenson’s classic?

Thank you very much. I wanted to make a movie about the difficulties and glory of teaching, because one does not go without the other. And Axelle Ropert, who wrote all the scripts of my movies, had what seemed to me like the perfect idea. Which idea? Mrs. Géquil, at the very end of her career, is always failing in front of her students. If she could have changed, she would have already. It’s too late now. No natural change is possible anymore. The only possibility left is a non-natural change, something fantastic. Hence Stevenson, who gives us the laboratory accident without which she couldn’t have changed.

The film offers pointed commentary about social class and one’s potential to change classes. Tell us about your thinking here.

It’s a fact that supervised personal schoolwork (TPE) is reserved to general classes. It’s a fact that superintendents might eventually be replaced by principals. It’s a fact that, in our country, there are ghettos for immigrants and their descendants. And so on. In every case, the goal is not to include these discriminations to complain, but to create cinematic moments, for instance a gag. Many concrete elements that become gags, like the TPE on prostitution or the minute of silence of the principal, came from two friends who teach in the suburbs – so the “wackier” stuff is pure documentary material!

Then again, even if a scene is inspired by reality, it doesn’t mean it statistically represents an average daily occurrence. In fact, these are things that are out of the ordinary, because that is another pleasure of fiction, as well as of conversations in the teachers’ lounge: talking about the crazy things that happen sometimes. Furthermore, these extreme cases often reveal the absurdity of various institutional instructions, e.g., the interdisciplinarity gimmick. We don’t have to show what is ordinary about this or that profession, or to brush up the image of the suburbs, disabled persons of colour, Jews from the Marais or albino mountain climbers! A filmmaker isn’t an employee of a community tourism agency; therefore he doesn’t have to offer a “positive image” of one group or another.

There is a political dimension in the film, but it’s in the subtext of the scenes instead of being their explicit content; we avoid lectures against racism, the discriminatory nature of technical classes, suburban ghettos, principals acting like managers…. The viewers feel this political dimension on their own, via their cinematic feelings (laughing, crying, hanging on to an edit, being confused…), instead of having ideological certainties forced on them.

How did you recruit Isabelle Huppert and Romain Duris to this project?

Hyde 03I sent Isabelle Huppert the script, since I wanted to work with her again, by finding in her the opposite of what she usually plays – i.e., strong women. Here she plays a weak woman in every way: scared, pusillanimous, lost…someone who lives in the shadow of her constant failure, and who will gradually transform. As in Tip Top (2013), the role was written for her. And again, if she had said no, I wouldn’t have made the film.

What was it like working with these legends?

“Fled foam underneath us.” (Yeats)

Is there a sense in which Mrs. Géquil picked a career for which she is simply unfit?

I hope not. The movie shows gradually that she had everything needed inside her. But, sometimes, it takes strange events to release what is hidden inside us.

It’s hard to picture Mrs. Géquil teaching for 35 years: do you think she might have been a better teacher once? What keeps her going?

No. She was a complete failure since her beginnings. What keeps her going is her passion for knowledge and transmission of knowledge and also her work-ethic. Why this obsession with teaching in the movie? In France, we don’t have many Westerns, musicals or vampire movies, but we have tons of “housing projects high school” films, the ideal socio-naturalist genre. In these films, high school is generally just a backdrop, because we are never interested in the classes. We don’t see what it is to teach something to someone, the time it takes, the type of dialogue with the students, the energy that is mobilized, the specific knowledge that is transmitted… There are only tidbits of classes in general, and a demagogic chit-chat approach to appear youthful.

But if you want to make a film about transmission, you have to truly film it – otherwise, pick another subject! You need to film, in real time, a scene that opens with, say, a problem presented to a student, and that only ends when the student is able to resolve it – not to inflict didactic torture on the viewers, but to give them a rare pleasure. There are many possible pleasures in life and in movies: laughing, crying, etc. But too often we forget the pleasure of a “eureka!” moment, when you suddenly understand something you didn’t before. This can be a very powerful pleasure, far superior to playing videogames or sports, in my opinion: the simple pleasure of learning.

What is crucial for me in this pleasure is its foolproof, rudimentary dimension. You trace two dots and a line on a blackboard and ask, “What is the shortest way to go from one dot to the other by passing through the line?” You don’t get to the answer by measuring all the possible paths like a brute, but by thinking without measuring anything. More precisely, by using reductio ad absurdum (to prove something, say p, we show that the result of the opposite hypothesis, i.e., non-p, would be an absurdity). It’s a junior-high school exercise. But to present arguments seems fundamental to me in life, whether you’re interested in science or not. Scientists are not the only ones who argue things, of course! Yet to argue something, without only lining up sentences, you need to know that you can write “therefore” between these sentences. Logic teaches us that. When is a sentence the consequence of another one? This is crucial. Hence the importance of having a science teacher in the film instead of a teacher talking about poetry, painting or music. We must sometimes go beyond the world of art!

How did you create Mrs. Hyde so that she becomes sufficiently, but not radically, different?

By finding a very simple special effect, inspired by the first episode of Outer Limits (the sixties sci-fi tv classic produced by Leslie Stevens), namely a kind of “polarisation” or “negative inversion”. So the form of the bodies is preserved, it’s only the light, and thus the colours, that are inversed.

What kind of future do you anticipate for Mrs. Hyde?

Hyde 02No future. The end of my movie is very sad, I think/hope. Mr. and Mrs. Géquil are really utterly destroyed, from the inside. They can’t even stand on their knees anymore. They fall down, in every sense. Look at the last teaching scene of Mrs. Géquil! But Malik, even in a very solitary way, gives the end a kind of dark hope. He will carry on the flame. He’s humiliated, but he will not renounce. Never. So something has been transmitted from her to him. So school was not in vain.

Romain Duris’ principal is equally useless as an educator, and yet he doesn’t get the blame. Is there a sense in which woman are treated less fairly?

He’s not a teacher. He’s a man of power: the head of the school. He’s very useless, you’re right. But I don’t think it’s a gender issue here. It’s a social or hierarchical issue: who’s on top? One of my favourite songs is “You’re On Top Girl!” by the Empires….

What is next for you?

To do a musical, like Mods (2002) or La France (2007), but taking place in the present, in my country. It will also be my first movie about love. If I get the money to make it!….

Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue has held visiting fellowships at Indiana University, Yale University, and the University of Toronto Scarborough, and he was the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is the Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.

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