It’s no great leap to cast Isabelle Huppert as a teacher — her performances as an ivory-tickling dominatrix in “The Piano Teacher” (2001) and a more mild-mannered philosophy professor in “Things to Come” (2016) rank among her greatest — but it takes a certain amount of nerve to cast her as an ineffectual one.
In “Mrs. Hyde,” a stimulatingly bizarre foray into pedagogical science fiction currently available on demand and screening Wednesday night at the Downtown Independent, Huppert plays Madame Géquil, who teaches physics at a French suburban high school. Among the movie’s more disquieting pleasures is the sight of this peerless actor — known for her ability to project an air of casual, chilly mastery over any situation — wilting under the mockery of her character’s unruly students, who treat her with only slightly more contempt than her colleagues do.
Early on, Madame Géquil notes, “A teacher doesn’t need to be liked but understood.” She, alas, is neither. Inside the classroom, her chief tormentor is an impossibly disruptive student named Malik (Adda Senani). Outside the classroom, she is treated with calculated dismissiveness by the principal (a wonderfully unrecognizable Romain Duris), whose brightly colored shirt-and-tie ensembles stand in stark contrast to Madame Géquil’s dreary wardrobe.
She is at least adored by her upbeat househusband, Pierre (José Garcia), who cluelessly suggests that she use her beauty to win her students over. The manner in which Madame Géquil turns the tables is scarcely less ridiculous: While fiddling about in her lab one day, she is electrocuted. The unusual, slow-to-emerge side benefits of this trauma include episodes of nighttime restlessness, a newfound confidence in the classroom and a curious imperviousness to the feelings of others. And then there is her ability to transform into a human torch, capable of melting ice and incinerating small animals at the slightest touch.
“Mrs. Hyde,” in other words, is not just a highly unorthodox reimagining of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” At times, it suggests a loose remake of “Firestarter” or perhaps a Parisian high school chapter of the “X-Men: Dark Phoenix” saga. This is hardly the first time the film’s writer and director Serge Bozon, an actor and critic as well as a playfully idiosyncratic filmmaker, has adopted a loose, experimental approach to genre — a tack seen to most brilliant effect in his World War I musical, “La France” (2007), about an itinerant group of soldiers who inexplicably, wonderfully burst into song.
Nothing quite so remarkable or enchanting transpires in “Mrs. Hyde,” whose goofily audacious concept flirts with horror, comedy and tragedy, but which studiously refuses to commit to any clear tonal metamorphosis even as things get stranger and stranger. It’s a fascinating choice on the part of Bozon, who maintains a tight grip on his formal choices — a palette of soft, light hues, a syncopated editing rhythm that seems to cut off every other scene a moment too soon — as if he himself were trying to suppress the monster within.
Consequently, you may wish that Huppert’s enjoyable performance had managed to cut even looser, that the story’s Géquil/Hyde dualism had given her more to do than stand around glowering with a CGI assist. But “Mrs. Hyde” is ultimately after subtler, brainier effects. Bozon may be having his way with Stevenson’s story, but he also deranges the hoary conventions of the inspirational teacher-student drama.
The key relationship in the picture is between Madame Géquil and Malik, a school pariah whose latent scholastic gifts she determinedly teases to the surface. The fact that Malik is an Arab teenager with a physical disability gestures in the direction of some larger social commentary about the marginalized underclass in French society and its own limitless social and intellectual potential.
One of the movie’s most gently mesmerizing scenes finds Madame Géquil guiding Malik through a geometric proof involving the shortest distance between two points. The answer, due to some specific conditions, isn’t anything as obvious as a straight line. “Mrs. Hyde” bridges the gap between these two soulful outcasts with similarly bracing ingenuity.
French with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: Downtown Independent, Los Angeles, June 27, 8 p.m.; also available on video on demand