Ninotchka meets The Wild Child: Serge Bozon on Madame Hyde
The French auteur discusses his offbeat, Isabelle Huppert-starring adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson horror classic
Isabelle Huppert (left) in MADAME HYDE
In his latest film Madame Hyde (screening on April 12 as part of MDFF Selects), genre-bending French auteur Serge Bozon riffs on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by reimagining the story in the present day with a female protagonist: mousy suburban teacher Mrs. Géquil, played by the great Isabelle Huppert, who was awarded Best Actress at the 2017 Locarno Film Festival for her performance. (This is Huppert’s second outing with Bozon, following the screwball 2013 thriller Tip Top.) Written by Bozon’s longtime collaborator Axelle Ropert, Madame Hyde is not only a fresh take on the Stevenson tale, but an utterly unique way of exploring social issues found in France’s educational system — one that eschews the prescribed social-realist conventions that have become a staple of contemporary French cinema in favour of an idiosyncratic blend of comedy, tragedy, and social critique.
Madame Hyde kicks off a four-film retrospective of Bozon’s previous work at TIFF Bell Lightbox from April 13 to 18, with the director in attendance at the screenings of Hyde and La France on April 13. I had a chance to speak with M. Bozon for The Review.
KAZIK RADWANSKI: In adapting Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, why did you choose to have a female protagonist?
SERGE BOZON: Because I wanted to work with Isabelle Huppert 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 — spectacularly at night, not so spectacularly during the day. As in Tip Top, the role was written for her. And again, if she had said no, I wouldn’t have made the film.
The challenge [here] was to blend [Ernst Lubitsch’s] Ninotchka and [François Truffaut’s] The Wild Child: to film a stuck, sad person who will transform not into some kind of super-seductress or superhero, but just a teacher who manages to do her job for the first time in her life. The ordinary daily life of thousands of teachers becomes the result of a fantastic adventure that calls everything into question for her; a seemingly mundane experience becomes the painful result of a supernatural initiation. As such, while the film isn’t realistic in its form, its substance is realistic. It’s all about completing a course. Helping someone learn something.
The idea [to connect the Stevenson story with teaching] initially came from Axelle Ropert. Mrs. Géquil, at the 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.
RADWANSKI: You shot the film on 35mm, and it has a wonderful palette of bright colours; the scenes at night also have very interesting quality. Could you talk about how you decided on the look of the film, and how you work with light?
BOZON: [Working] with cinematographer Céline Bozon, [I was] looking for light that was both soft and colourful, with all the non-shiny texture of Fuji film. But Fuji stopped producing it a long time ago. Thankfully, we found some old stock at Cinédia. In a more general way, there is a plastic stylization to the film, which is built on the daily repetition of three locations that are also three lighting situations: during the day at school; in the evening at the house; at night in the suburbs. At the house, we actually shot during the day, because the evenings were too brief to film long scenes with a minimum of blocking. The cinematographer placed a ten-square-metre sheet over the Géquils garden; this makes the foreground darker (everything under the sheet) and the background lighter (everything beyond the sheet, notably the sky and the towers). It’s what you could call “day for evening,” a bit like when you shoot day for night. We hoped it wouldn’t be too sunny. It wasn’t. Hence, the artificiality is even more visible.
I’m ultimately very happy about this and everything else that Céline invented, even though there was a slight panic at the time. Because on top of the lighting difference, there is a colour difference: the foreground is warmer while the background is colder. Why? I think it’s pretty, and this stylization isn’t unjustified in that the Géquils are an isolated couple, without children or friends. They live obscurely in a kind of domestic self-protection, so it seemed to me like this warm half-light matched their need for quasi-nocturnal self-protection. It also saved us from having to plainly film TVs, furniture, all these interior locations that don’t inspire me. I prefer to film suburban high schools, trains, or harbours.
RADWANSKI: You have a really remarkable editing style, with changing rhythms: sometimes there are sharp and fast cuts, while at others times shots linger. Is it important for you to keep things surprising?
BOZON: Why do I cut a bit sharp? I’m having some fun. In comedy, I find that when you don’t go for fast cuts, it becomes a bit dull and predictable. To maintain the fun and the surprises, you need a bit of adrenaline. It’s hard to explain, because it’s all about tempo, timing, attention. It can feel very aggressive, but that’s not the goal. I see it as a way to restart: we stop, hop, we start again, and the next scene benefits from this restart.
The longer scenes are the didactic scenes. Each of the three is different: the first one is about geometry, the second about physics, and the third about philosophy. There is a fun thing in cinema that is getting lost. With many very different filmmakers, we only get short scenes with lots of ellipses, like fragments. I think that we are more excited by really big developing scenes, with a beginning, middle and end, like the inspection scene in my film. Often, in recent American comedies I’ve seen, the scenes are disappointingly short. If the scene had lingered, if the characters had been able to express themselves fully, what could have happened?
In terms of editing, I regret that I’m not as masterful as John Ford, Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut or Luis Buñuel, who almost didn’t have to go into editing [at all]: you would take their screenplay and the rushes, you’d put the shots in order, remove the clapper boards, and viola, the editing was done. With me, every time, we fiddle a lot with the film, we throw away things. This movie could have almost been twice as long. We never respected the screenplay as a whole: during the shoot, then during the edit, there were scenes which I wasn’t satisfied with. So there was no point in including them. And beyond cutting scenes — which happens with many directors, even though I might cut a bit more — there was the fact that I didn’t stick to the order and totality of the dialogue. I edit over 12 or 13 weeks, but finding the form often takes quite a while, because there is always the problem of tonal shifts and the desire to achieve something that is balanced and not completely arrhythmic. I kind of attempted that with Tip Top, but this isn’t the same thing. Tip Top was rather systematic: it started with a slap and ended with a slap; almost every new scene took place in a new location, with another character; it was almost constantly abrupt, aggressive even. Madame Hyde is sweeter, more linear.
RADWANSKI: The film very effectively captures how difficult it can be to teach: when Géquil finally has a breakthrough, you feel that the students are really learning and are having their own epiphanies. I read that you once worked as a teacher in the Paris suburbs — how did your past as a teacher inform how you approached these scenes?
BOZON: Very little, I believe: it was too long ago (1995–1997) and too briefly. In France, we don’t have many westerns, musicals or vampire movies, but we have tons of “suburban 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, much superior to playing videogames or sports, in my opinion: the simple pleasure of learning.
The problem, in short, is that the artistic community is secretly Poujadist. [Ed. note: 1950s French politician Pierre Poujade was the founder and namesake of a populist movement that prided itself on its rural “authenticity,” xenophobia and anti-intellectualism.] That financial decision-makers fear that any classroom scene will piss off viewers is perfectly normal, but that artists who swear by Rancière, Lacan, Zizek, Derrida, Benjamin and Deleuze (when they aren’t putting on plays by Cixous or Badiou) be terrified by the idea of enduring a fifth-grade mathematical proof doesn’t seem normal to me. Where does this rejection come from? This idea that mathematics is good for accountants, but not for artists? Maybe it comes from the fact that this is a community where the less you understand, the better. And what’s crazy is that this characteristic of the artistic community is the same I saw in my philosophy teachers when I was a student — and I was the same, by the way. I was very happy to understand very vaguely as many things as possible. (Though it’s too convenient to talk about the “artistic community” — I should be more specific, art form by art form. Some other time!)
Anyway, it’s impossible to do that with logic or math, which leads to the hidden, controversial side of the film: here, you must truly understand, otherwise you’re stuck. You can’t pretend, as with Lacan. But it’s also beautiful, in that there is this 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! There are more fundamental things to learn. And those are the things we learn the least in France. As Godard used to say, “Learn to fight with the three ‘to’s: to read, to write, to count.”
RADWANSKI: This film and your previous feature Tip Top both critique French institutions through comedy, and both seem more reminiscent of comedies of the ’40s and ’50s rather than recent films. Why do you explore such contemporary social issues in France through classical modes of comedy?
BOZON: Turning away from realism doesn’t mean forgetting about concrete social realities. On the contrary, freeing yourself from plausibility allows you to address specific, concrete discrimination without taking yourself too seriously or using victimhood rhetoric. 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 feelings (laughing, crying, hanging on to an edit, being confused…), instead of having ideological certainties forced on them.
RADWANSKI: In your film La France, there are a number of great pop songs you wrote with Fugu and Benjamin Esdraffo. How did you approach the rap scene in Madame Hyde? Do you listen to rap music, or was it more of a collaboration with the actors?
BOZON: I don’t listen to a lot of rap. The idea was to start from the cliché (French suburbs = rap) and to take it elsewhere, because the rap gradually turns into pop, and the tough guys in hoodies reveal themselves to be children when they remove their hoodies. There’s a dreamy innocence to this anti-school rap. Candour behind the violence. And it’s all live, without cheating with the voices, [just as] in La France. Benjamin Esdraffo composed the music for the rap, and all the other music in the film.
RADWANSKI: Axelle Ropert has written all of your films, and your sister Céline has shot all of them. I wonder if you could talk a little about working regularly with the same collaborators.
BOZON: I would add Pascale Bodet, the artistic consultant; Laurent Gabiot, the sound engineer and mixer; François Quiqueré, the editor; Julie Gouet, the assistant; David Thion, the producer; Benjamin Esdraffo, the composer; Stéphane Batut, the casting director; and so on. Why? To get out of the “pro” and thus hierarchical side and allow everyone to give their opinion, and to work on the films on a daily basis, beyond the shooting/editing periods, by discussing with the people around you. That’s ideal.