Isabelle Huppert stars as a beleaguered French science teacher who, following a lightning strike, sporadically transforms into a fire lady. Serge Bozon’s absurdist revision of Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale has some wonderful moments but doesn’t quite je kill it.
Madame Gequil (Huppert) works in the Arthur Rimbaud High School and it is unclear what is worth – the abuse and taunting she gets from the indifferent when not hostile boys or the engagement of the classes only two female students, who criticise her constantly. This despite the fact that Gequil is a conscientious and caring teacher who is particularly concerned by Malik (Adda Senani), a disruptive and failing student who she wishes to help partly because of his disability – he moves around the school aided by a walker and is the object of contempt to his classmates. In fact, his clowning and his wish to be a rapper speak of a deep need to fit in, even at the expense of his own success.
Huppert isn’t aided much by the director of the school – an inspired and hilarious turn by Romain Duris – a floppy fringed fop whose arrogance is as flashy and superficial as his suits. He has his eye on Gequil who is due a second inspection having already not impressed. At home Gequil’s house husband (Jose Garcia) practises the keyboards and cooks the evening meal. He obviously adores his wife but is unable to help her with her work, offering her inept advice on using silence and her beauty to conquer her class. When Gequil is experimenting in her laboratory with equipment she refuses to let the students touch, she is hit by a power surge caused by the lightning and a transformation takes place.
Bozon and Axelle Ropert’s screenplay has already set up the irony with Gequil lambasting the students for their interest in superheroes – telling them they are all waiting for a miracle, a magical transformation instead of studying and working to change and improve themselves. Obviously not having heeded her own advice for the thirty-five years of her career, she is now transformed into something like the Human Torch from The Fantastic Four. Whereas Hyde was a true part of Jekyll’s personality, the fire lady who burns to embers anybody she touches as she sleepwalks the suburbs at night feels more like a wandering plot device. There’s no rage to her and her targets are indiscriminate – two friendly neighbourhood dogs are reduced to ashes, for instance.
But character and psychology aren’t really the point here. Bozon’s world is one of adult grotesquerie splatting against the wall of youthful hostility. And yet strangely, Madame Hyde does feel devoted to the inspirational teacher trope – see Dangerous Minds or Dead Poets Society – and spends an entertaining scene on the explanation of a Faraday Cage. It’s almost as if there’s a split personality going on here, both caring and giggling at the futility of it all.
The Locarno Film Festival takes place from 2-12 August 2017. For more info: pardo.ch
John Bleasdale | @drjonty