Welcome to "Reel Women," a column highlighting important women in the world of cinema, from on-screen characters to real-life filmmakers.
Isabelle Huppert can be a frightening on-screen presence. If you’re familiar with her film roles, then you know she’s good at playing disturbed and daring, whether she’s stabbing and cutting herself while perusing late-night peep shows (The Piano Teacher) or killing a rich family with her best friend (La Cérémonie), or fearlessly pursuing her rapist in the controversial Elle. So in a way, there’s no one better suited to play the female version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Huppert, dainty in figure and dressed in soft pastels, is struck with transformation (literally, by lightning) in Serge Bozon’s latest film, Mrs. Hyde, a subtle, comical, feminist take on the classic horror story about dual personalities. Huppert’s Madame Hyde initially starts off as a shy science teacher in a suburban Paris high school (the kind her students walk all over) and develops a new persona that instills fear in the pupils she was mocked by. The film opens at Metrograph on April 27.
Huppert has been working consistently since the '70s, with over 130 acting credits to her name, and she’s always landed interesting roles that confront female desire and repression. She’s also one of few French women in film who have supported the #MeToo movement (as opposed to Catherine Breillat, Catherine Deneuve, and many others). Here, in this special edition of "Reel Women," I spoke with Huppert about her nuanced portrayal of the Jekyll/Hyde character (in a year already packed with Huppert performances), how she deals with others' preconceived notions of her based on her cold or twisted characters, and her very likely future collaboration with Moonlight director Barry Jenkins.
BROADLY: I thought the film was so funny and just so different, even knowing the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
ISABELLE HUPPERT: It’s very far from the original story.
Even though the movie has scenes of you literally glowing, I thought the transformation was surprisingly subtle, like the way you shift your body language from the frame before. How did you and director Serge Bozon talk through that transformation?
From the very beginning, Serge kept saying, "I want you to feel very shy, I want you to be almost like a shadow." So after that, the way I started to think about the character, it was all very natural. And then the body language followed and then the costume followed. It also helped to be clumsy with the long skirts and the old-fashioned way of being dressed.
I was trying to figure if there was some color coding with the outfits.
No, but with Delphine Caposella, the costume designer, we wanted the character to be contrary to what one would have thought—rather colorful, with this lovely pink. Serge likes colors in his films. So he wasn’t against having lots of colors to make it more pictorial.
There’s a great moment when you’re trying to yell above your talking students and your voice kind of cracks. Was that intentional?
No. Well, let’s say, in a performance, nothing is intentional at all. Everything is unintentional, you know what I mean. Nothing is at random, but everything is more instinctive. Of course, it comes from a very inner feeling.
I really felt for her, in that desperation to be heard. What do you think this says about Madame Hyde’s sense of self or her sense of womanhood?
Well she’s a very complete person in a way. But that’s why, for him it was very important that there was a "Dr. Jekyll." So, it was important that, of course she has no children but she’s a married woman and she also has some worries of sometimes being seductive to her husband. And because of what she is, the little attempts to be a woman, to be a wife, to be seductive, to be coquettish… it makes her even more funny in a way. Because everything in her is so very shy, you know. She’s a completely imaginary character coming out of Serge’s imagination and yet, what is always like in Bozon’s film is the fact that he combines something completely unrealistic—like a fantasy—together with many elements that place the film in a very contemporary and modern and realistic existing situation and context. You know the situation of the school in a certain suburban region around Paris with multicultural students and you know how important it is for them to get the chance to have education and transmission and knowledge. The power of knowledge is a tool for elevation.
There are many students of color in this movie.
That’s true. And it’s exactly where we were shooting. I mean that was not imaginary, I mean the students of the school are obviously extras, but we shot in this college near Paris, and the pupils are like this.
How did that shape the dynamic between the teacher and the students?
Because the setting is so strong, the situation is so obvious, it clicked immediately. And they were very good even though they were young, non-professional actors. They were very serious and concerned about what they were doing and they knew exactly what the movie meant.
Speaking of the realistic versus fantastic, I love that musical sequence, the rapping scene. Do you listen to any rap yourself?
Not very much, I have to say. It’s really interesting the way Bozon uses that in the film because he really reflects the reality of our world, which is how people from different cultures can come across. I mean, this teacher and those young students have their own language, their own cultural environment. She has her own environment but at some point they can share something through the attempt to teach something to them, through the attempt to understand something. You know, this is how it works.
I know you worked with Serge before; did he have you in mind initially when he brought this story to you?
Yes. Because we did this other film before together called Tip Top. I was playing a policewoman in this film, a very harsh character… very strong, very brutal, very funny also. And in this film he wanted me to be the opposite of what I was in his previous film: someone very shy, shadowy, almost scared of existing. And this is how he viewed me in that film.
I’m sure people have preconceived notions of you based on the characters you play, many of them very cold or twisted. Do you find that people come to you with a certain idea of who you are as a person?
Yeah, but it’s normal. It would be very surprising if it doesn’t happen this way because many of those films are disturbing and daring and questions the female psyche, so it’s absolutely understandable. I’m not surprised with this. And it’s no surprise that people might get confused between what they see on the screen and what they project onto myself.
Was there something particularly challenging about this role, aside from having to do all the math on the chalkboard?
That was a very big challenge because I’m not a math person, I’m not a science person. Oh my god, I had such a hard time. Plus, I had to act at the same time and be convincing.. I was saying something that I wasn’t always understanding, so that was really funny and challenging.
Are you a fan of these classic horror stories like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ?
No, absolutely not. I’m not even sure I have seen any of these films. And I did not even see them before starting the project. It’s such an extreme and vague extrapolation of the real. I mean, everybody knows when you say "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" that it means someone is a double, someone is able to transform, be mysterious but also dangerous. So with the mere title comes all sorts of immediate and instinctive associations. So, that was enough for me as for anybody else.
I think with a story like Mrs. Hyde, it’s easy to think, “Oh, she’s trapped in an abusive home,” or, “her husband is very controlling and she needs to break out and be a different person.” And I love that the film didn’t go down that route. Her husband is actually very loving towards her and it made her more interesting.
I think so, yes, and also because she’s very weak and fragile. But she’s brave enough to go outside and work, whereas the husband is more like a house-husband and he stays at home. He also has artistic ambitions, he’s the opposite of what she is. But it makes her even more interesting because she’s the one who goes out. She’s the one to go and work outside and confront herself with the outside world.
I know you have a lot of things coming up with great directors; many people are excited for you to work with Barry Jenkins.
Yes. It might happen, absolutely. There’s a number of people that I met during the campaign last year and yeah, we’ll probably end up working together, hopefully. He’s so wonderful.