“Teachers, they have it easy!” exclaims a father early on in Serge Bozon’s dutifully unclassifiable comic-horror schoolhouse lit-adaptation curio Mrs. Hyde. That father says this in a swimming pool just moments after he has accidentally splashed Mrs. Gequil, the film’s lead, played by Isabelle Huppert. Gequil has spent the day suffering the put-downs, disinterest and persistent jabbering rudeness of her physics students at a local high school. That splashing, and that line of dialogue, bode poorly for the film to follow: The irony is as broad and bald as a hippo’s belly, the kind of comic indignity a studio crowd-pleaser might foist on Ben Stiller.
At its worst, Bozon’s film strains to show us what we already know. Teaching teenagers ain’t easy, of course, and Isabelle Huppert is luminous. Bozon (Tip Top) emphasizes that via wholly unnecessary special effects, buttering his star up in a superhero’s sheath of golden light. The story, loosely adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel of the monster within, finds Gequil transformed into a murderous electric sylph after lightning strikes the high school’s laboratory. Enter Mrs. Hyde, who stalks the Paris suburbs at night and kills the occasional rapping teenager — yes, with two p’s — while wreathed in light that obscures the very visage audiences will have paid to see. Making Huppert extra radiant in post isn’t just redundant. It slathers cheapjack pixels over the actress’ expressive instrument.
Fortunately, Mrs. Hyde doesn’t appear too often. This story mostly sticks with its Jekyll. The story’s key twist is more clever than what you might expect from a script that boasts, “Teachers, they have it easy!” Turns out that Hyde’s rapaciousness stirs in Gequil a bit of courage. She finds herself more confident in the classroom, bolder in her assignments and bucking of school rules, but also more certain in how to reach out to the kids who need some attention. One troubled youth, Malik (Adda Senani) becomes her prize student, even after snapping at her, in one of the early scenes, “What do you know? You’re old. You only know old stuff!” (The on-the-nose stuff here lives, dies and wallows right on the nose.) By the end, he beams while thinking of her, speaking her name with reverence and quoting the lesson she taught: “Solving a problem means finding a detour.”
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The movie comes to life, at times, especially in its detours. These come in the back half, when the tone sours, the killing loses all veneer of comedy or karmic justice and Gequil finds herself at last recognized for her excellence as a teacher and haunted by her other half. Huppert strikes complex, sometimes clashing notes in a falling-apart monologue at the head of the classroom, making acutely painful Gequil’s realization of just what’s inside her. And some of the humiliation comedy in the classroom is funny, including a knockout bit where Gequil, like a sitcom character, way overcommits to a bit of bad advice from a loved one. The setup is laborious, but the payoff made me roar.