A complicated woman

Isabelle Huppert on torturing teachers and playing Mrs Géquil and Mrs Hyde

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Isabelle Huppert on the costumes chosen by Delphine Caposella for Madame Hyde:
Isabelle Huppert on the costumes chosen by Delphine Caposella for Madame Hyde: "I love them!" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll turning into Mr Hyde has been portrayed by John Barrymore, Fredric March and Spencer Tracy - but never in a transformation quite like this.

Mrs Hyde (Madame Hyde), screenplay by Serge Bozon and Axelle Ropert, cinematography by the director's sister Céline Bozon, stars Isabelle Huppert as Mrs Géquil, the science teacher (or music or English) you don't remember. Fragile, timid, frightened, she has a preference for pale yellow cardigans and pink skirts and sensible shoes, and speaks with a high, shaky voice when she enters the classroom.

José Garcia is her stay-at-home husband who cooks for her and is less perceptive than he seems. Romain Duris, the principal of the school where she teaches, wears pants and ties (in rust, avocado, pale purple or the like) that match the colours of the school's walls and doors and has everything and nothing under control, it turns out.

Mrs Hyde (Madame Hyde) director Serge Bozon
Mrs Hyde (Madame Hyde) director Serge Bozon Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The students make endless fun of her - one splatters ink from his fountain pen onto the back of her blouse while she writes a formula on the blackboard. Malik (Adda Senani), a student who himself is being teased for a bad leg he had from birth, is particularly hostile. It is the time of the harvest moon and one day a thunderstorm is brewing. Lightning strikes which makes our protagonist cross a magnificent identity threshold.

Isabelle Huppert, in town for the New York Film Festival première, discussed with me the contradictions in all of us, turning into Mrs Hyde and what her costume designer had in store for her.

Anne-Katrin Titze: We've seen you play teachers in many different shapes and forms but nobody quite like her. I don't think I ever heard you in a voice like that, a voice that high and shaky. The entire Madame Géquil is in that voice.

Isabelle Huppert: We never really thought about it. It just happened. I think the character most of the time, at least in the early part of the film, is halfway between being very funny and then it goes to a more tragic figure. At the beginning she is rather funny, you know, she's rather out of space. I don't know, sometimes you come up with little things and you don't even think about it.

Mrs Géquil (Isabelle Huppert) and her student (Roxane Arnal) in the Faraday Cage
Mrs Géquil (Isabelle Huppert) and her student (Roxane Arnal) in the Faraday Cage

It's a combination of several elements. She's a bit old-fashioned, she's a bit funny, she's a bit candid, she's a bit naive, she's a bit shy. A little bit of all these things that led me to this voice which I'm not really aware of. Only because you said that to me I realise that.

AKT: She didn't remind you of anyone you knew in school?

IH: If I think about it, yes, I had maybe teachers like this. Rather pathetic, you know, who had a hard time being heard and being respected. To be honest, I'm thinking about that now because you ask me the question.

When I did the role I did not even think about it but maybe it's all in unconscious images that are registered in your mind and then it of course contributes to create a character. But it was not a conscious memory when I did the part. But now that you say that to me, yes, I remember clearly this poor English teacher. Everybody made fun of her.

AKT: I remembered torturing teachers while seeing this [Mrs Hyde].

Principal (Romain Duris) with Mrs Géquil (Isabelle Huppert):
Principal (Romain Duris) with Mrs Géquil (Isabelle Huppert): "Sometimes after she has been Mrs. Hyde, then the next day she would have a kind of strange feeling."

IH: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Absolutely.

AKT: How brutal we were.

IH: And the students were literally torturing her. Making fun of her and she would cry. And in fact, she was exactly like Madame Hyde. Only because you talked to me about her I remember.

AKT: We talked about another film and you said shoes are always an entry way into a role.

IH: Well, of course, shoes is very important. You don't have the same kind of walking whether you wear high-heeled shoes or flat shoes. In this case she has little heels, which gives her a little height but not too much. But to be honest, I have very little to do as an actress in the film with Mrs Hyde. You know, for me it was all about being Mrs Géquil. Because Mrs Hyde was very technical.

Also she has no awareness as she is Mrs Géquil to me. Sometimes after she has been Mrs Hyde, then the next day she would have a kind of strange feeling. I mean, she understands that something strange maybe went on, happened, the previous night.

Almost like a nightmare. Or like a dream, but something that she is absolutely unable to name as an actual transformation. So it was all the film's and Serge's responsibility and I had very little to do about it as an actress in the film.

Isabelle Huppert:
Isabelle Huppert: "You are always what you are and the opposite of what you are."

AKT: Of course it's a totally different concept of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. You are not John Barrymore, you are not Fredric March, you're not Spencer Tracy. Did you re-watch any of those for fun?

IH: No. I think that in any role you can also think that you are Mr Jekyll or Mrs Jekyll and Mrs Hyde in a way. You are always what you are and the opposite of what you are. It's always a double path. In life too. That's what it means also. This is also why it always fascinated people forever, because it also reflects.

It's like you would look at a certain reality with a magnifying light. But in a way it comes from an existing reality that everybody is what he is and the opposite of what he is.

AKT: I loved the scene when you are explaining to Malik [Adda Senani] on the blackboard in the lab. How does this work? You are teaching him and you are teaching us, too. I was totally fascinated. You became my teacher at that moment.

IH: Thank you. You couldn't reward me more with what you said. That gave me a lot of work.

AKT: So often in school movies … High school movies, especially American ones, that's not really a genre I like. Often they have nothing to do with school. This is different. I learned something. Did you learn something by doing this?

Isabelle Huppert on portraying Mrs Géquil teaching Malik (Adda Senani):
Isabelle Huppert on portraying Mrs Géquil teaching Malik (Adda Senani): "That gave me a lot of work."

IH: I learned something about my self determination and how perverse Serge was. But that I knew already. Anyway. No, I'm kidding. I like what Serge said last night, he said, as you just pointed to yourself, most of the time you make movies about teaching and it's all like caricature and a nice little tourist trip into the subject.

In this case you really witness someone teaching with someone experiencing the happiness of understanding. What it means to teach, what it means to make somebody understand, what it means to understand and what it means to be this understanding person. Which means to be a human being in a way.

AKT: As far as the costumes are concerned, I actually really liked some of the things Madame Géquil is wearing.

IH: I love them!

AKT: When I looked through the New York Film Festival catalogue and saw the photo of you in the blouse and the skirt, I thought to myself, that's the only thing I would wear [not that I look for fashion advice in these pages.]

Mrs Hyde poster
Mrs Hyde poster

IH: The most difficult is to make something completely eccentric, something that normally you wouldn't wear. That was something that we had to follow. On the other hand it gave us a lot of freedom. I think that Delphine Caposella, that she had a lot of freedom to find all these strange clothes, long dresses - most of the time quite unlikely.

But on the other hand it's also nice because we're making movies and we don't want to suffer too much, to also make it attractive in a way. Attractive in a very strict way. Very contrived but attractive. And that's the case. For instance, I like very much the pink pullover in the end.

AKT: I do too.

IH: Because it's really sweet.

AKT: It's a good colour.

IH: It's a wonderful colour.

Read what director Serge Bozon had to say on Madame Hyde before his First Encounter with Ida Lupino's Hard, Fast And Beautiful.

Mrs Hyde (Madame Hyde) will have its theatrical premiere in Paris on March 28, 2018

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