Madame Gequil (Isabelle Huppert) prepares to deliver a shock in ‘Mrs. Hyde’
Madame Gequil (Isabelle Huppert) prepares to deliver a shock in ‘Mrs. Hyde’

I know absolutely nothing about the French educational system, but judging from Madame Hyde (Mrs. Hyde, opening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater today  – no East Bay play dates are currently scheduled) it has its fair share of problems. Then again, perhaps I shouldn’t be giving the film a literal reading – at times completely unmoored from reality, it features more than its fair share of fantastical elements.

Isabelle Huppert headlines as Marie Géquil, a meek physics teacher at Lycee Arthur Rimbaud, a school somewhere in the Parisian suburbs. At first, I assumed the school’s name was intended as satire – Rimbaud, of course, being a dissolute French poet who abandoned his studies in favor of a life of libertinism – but no, there are several such schools located throughout France, including the one featured in this film.  It’s quite literally just down the street from Lycee Simone de Beauvoir. The French are not like you or me (unless, of course, you happen to be of the Gallic persuasion).

In sharp contrast to their teacher, Madame Géquil’s students are anything but meek and mild. They regard Madame with contempt, running roughshod in the classroom and filing complaints with the school’s smarmy, overdressed principal (Romain Duris) about their perceived mistreatment at her hands.

A lightning storm changes everything. Working late one night in the school’s laboratory, Madame receives a jolt of electricity that turns her into a classroom dynamo who also has the power to incinerate the rapping ruffians who hang around her housing estate late at night.

It’s not entirely clear if writer-director Serge Bozon intended Mrs. Hyde to be anything more than a darkly comic take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale of bipolar behavior. A literal interpretation suggests that the sink estates of Paris have spawned a disenchanted underclass of largely black and Arabic youth diverted onto a vocational track by a systemically racist system, where something as hard to quantify as physics only begins to make sense after their teacher begins to (literally) glow. Perhaps the film’s message is that you may have to turn a few people – and a few animals – to ash in order to get a promotion at work.

Whatever the director’s intent, however, Huppert is as good as ever as she transforms from wilting wallflower to glow-in-the-dark death machine. I suspect your enjoyment of this puzzling film will largely hinge on whether or not you find Madame sympathetic or repulsive.

Vivienne Westwood

Vivienne Westwood never killed anyone to get ahead, though she did design an iconic tee-shirt featuring a swastika and the word ‘destroy’ emblazoned across it. The subject of Lorna Tucker’s new documentary Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas today), Dame Vivienne has somehow been transformed from scorned and hated figure of fun to British national treasure over the course of her forty year career as a fashionista.

Westwood is a pleasure to listen to throughout this film, her sharp Northern burr underscoring her blunt assessment of the people she’s worked and lived with over the years – including the late punk promoter Malcolm McLaren, who comes off rather poorly herein. I generally have no interest in films about the fashion industry, but this one is different, with its subject’s importance to the late ‘70s punk scene and continued involvement with anti-fracking and climate change activism leaving her as relevant today, at 77, as she was in her 30s and 40s. A national treasure indeed.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...