An Interview with Serge Bozon
By Fanta Sylla
In Serge Bozon’s fifth feature, Mrs. Hyde, inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and written by Bozon and Axelle Ropert, the hapless physics teacher Madame Géquil (Isabelle Huppert) faces a tough classroom. Oppositions and dualities have been motifs in Serge Bozon’s cinema since his first features L’Amitié, Mods and even more in La France (2007) and Tip Top (2013), his previous collaboration with Isabelle Huppert. In La France, a desperate Camille (Sylvie Testud) dresses upas a soldier to join her husband fighting in the first World War, while Tip Top explores the mimetic relationship between two detectives, the pugnacious Esther (Huppert) and the porous Sally (Sandrine Kiberlain).
The classroom configuration of Mrs. Hyde is one we have seen depicted many times in both French (The Class) and American cinema (Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds). Indeed, the teacher film is a genre unto itself. By way of Stevenson’s gothic novel, Bozon deviates from the genre’s conventional realism—and moralistic intent—to offer a singular sci-fi movie set in the simultaneously over-and-under exploited French banlieues. Once again, the auteur intends to surprise, confuse, and upset us by shifting tones, addressing the economy and unseriousness of B movies and the aesthetic principles of the American classics he cherishes, and depicting the tragedy of a woman on the verge of collapse.
A known cinephile and still working film critic with an affinity for polemics (he has a monthly column in So Film), Serge Bozon has had a slow rise to the mainstream without cynical compromise. Whether one loves or hates his films, their existence signals a continuing diversity in French cinema and their modest success proves the undying curiosity of French audiences. I talked to Bozon about the color blue, his ongoing collaboration with longtime cinematographer and sister Céline Bozon, and turning José Garcia into an adorable house-husband.
Reverse Shot: How did you conceive the visualization of Madame Géquil/Isabelle Huppert’s nocturnal transformation?
Serge Bozon: I have a friend, Djibril Glissant, also a filmmaker, who had this idea. There is this American television show from the fifties called The Outer Limits. In the pilot, there is an alien. To depict it, since they didn’t have a lot of money, they just polarized it like a negative. So I thought it would be great to do that. Glissant tried it out on his computer since he knows a bit about special effects. And then with Mikros, a great postproduction company, we started working on this polarization, and so we renounced the original idea of a “fire-woman” and with it the whole action film aspect (she touches you, you burn), and we moved toward something simpler and more mysterious.
RS: I love the line shouted by a student “There are only poets here at Arthur Rimbaud!” How did you find the high school featured in the film?
SB: We spotted a lot of high schools in the Paris region. It was love at first sight with this one. First, there is a miniature dimension—it’s a small high school with only 450 students. The spaces are small, so we can have the playground and the buildings behind it in one shot. It gives a certain unity like in B movies. You’ll notice, in these movies, the settings are very small, not because they were some sort of pre-Wes Anderson dollhouses, but just that it allows you, in one shot, to capture an entire place without moving the camera. I also loved the proximity of the towers, the colors of the hallways and the bas-relief in geometrical shapes: diamond, triangles, rectangles…
RS: The color blue comes back a lot in your work since La France, and of course it’s in Tip Top.
SB: It’s complicated but to be quick: blue is considered a cold color and in a lot of nineties films, like Caroline Champetier’s films for instance, there is a blue that is very cold, very hard. I have always thought we could use this color in a more nocturnal mode, dreamier, softer, a blue that is almost warm—that’s how I used it in La France. It’s never the same blue, though. I won’t use it in the same way in all my films; as if it was a signature blue...the Blue Bozon (laughs). But it’s like with the red, in Tip Top and Mrs. Hyde—in any shot there is a spot of red. My art director Pascale Bodet told me that putting a bit of red in an image would balance or enhance even if you don’t have a lot of colors in the shot… But I am very interested in all things plastic: lighting, framing, costumes. It’s not that I am obsessed with blue; it’s part of the global plastic project of the film.
RS: Here the red would be Isabelle Huppert’s hair, and her shirt during the inspection scene. When it comes to lighting how did you working with your cinematographer, Céline Bozon? You went from a lighting that was strikingly crude in Tip Top to something warmer here, closer to La France.
SB: In the film there are three main settings that correspond with three modes of lighting, which correspond with three moments of Madame Géquil’s schedule. During the day she’s at school, in the evening at home, and during the night she goes progressively to the projects. Let’s take one of the three: at Géquil’s, these are evening scenes but they weren’t shot during the evening. We shot during the day and we put a sheet above the veranda that would cut the daylight. We hoped the weather would be bad, but on the contrary it was sunny! It produces something artificial. Everything below the sheet is obscure but what is farther off is lighted, which doesn’t happen in real life. The atmosphere is similar to those “American nights” [day for nights] in Hollywood. In westerns if you look at the sky, it’s blue, even though it should be dark, like the night usually is. I love the artificiality; it’s not gratuitous. The Géquils evolve in a protective obscurity: the husband doesn’t work, they don’t have any children, any friends, and they are living in a cocoon. And also from a strict aesthetic point of view, I loved the cold colors of the background and the warmer colors of the foreground. In the film, there are many audacious stylistic decisions, and then there is the wind, the sun, the actors—the elements one cannot really control and which make us discover things we had not anticipated.
RS: The editing is not radically different from your previous film, but there are maybe more surprising, even disturbing cuts. I’m thinking about the scene in which Romain Duris’s line overlaps with the next shot, a completely different sequence that has nothing do with what he says or where he says it.
SB: It doesn’t really overlap, but it’s short. You have a good attention, because it’s true that, when we edited, it was so short that we wondered if it wasn’t too short. I should say I don’t have a theory. Editing is very artisanal—cutting one second before or after. In certain scenes it gives a nervous impulse, a kind of adrenaline, like in music. We need things to not settle too much or there can be a kind of comfort, and sometimes I feel like there needs to be a sharp impulse. But maybe I’m wrong because it’s true that in the classical films I cite all the time, cutting is always fluid; whereas in my films the cuts are visible. And editing should be invisible.
RS: How did you find Adda Sedani, the newcomer who plays Malik in the film?
SB: Thanks to casting director Mohamed Belhamar, who usually works with Jacques Audiard. We found him very late; he was the last one to be cast actually. I admit I had a precise idea of the actor’s appearance: I wanted someone who was disabled in the film, and who looked frail. Either because he was too skinny or had this tall body, a bit strange. Belhamar has an interesting casting method. He has an entire network that led us to Sedani, who is a Thaï boxing champion—he didn’t have the frail look at all, he was good-looking, strong. But I found he had guts, which allowed us to not feel pity for the character in spite of his disability. Because of that his insolence appeared more aggressive toward Huppert. So instead of attaching yourself to his character instantly, the emotion comes progressively.
RS: An important aspect of your cinema is your relationship with actors, and increasingly with stars. This is your second collaboration with Huppert, but your first with Duris and José Garcia. The latter, specifically, is surprisingly touching.
SB: There is a pleasure in seeing an actor doing something he hasn’t done before. Discovery is always more pleasant than repetition. We often see José Garcia playing talkative, overexcited characters, though I’ve always thought that he had a soft side, a humility that would work well for this “house-husband,” who is a bit strange and who always tries to reassure his wife. I felt he could convey a domestic warmth. But my relationship with film stars . . . it’s a desire I have always had. I have always loved the relationship with stars that one could see in classical films. When you see a film by Howard Hawks, with John Wayne or Marilyn Monroe, I have always loved what auteurs would do with them. But I’m not just interested in that, because in my films there is a mix of stars, less-known actors, and even non-actors!
RS: Let’s talk about the final scene in class, which is painful to watch, and so well performed by Huppert. How did you approach this scene?
SB: To me this scene is very sad, it’s the climax, and it’s a scene I’m very proud of. I wanted to do a film on teaching, so there are class scenes, and each one is different. The first class scene is about geometry: the bad teacher becomes good, the bad student becomes good. The second one is the inspection scene, more about physics and the collective. Huppert doesn’t say much. The third scene is not a pedagogical scene, and here the spectator is not asked to follow a course in real time, to be in a student’s class; here the spectator doesn’t understand much—it’s more of an emotional scene. Will the students take advantage of their teacher’s weakness as they had done before? No. There is a sharing of her weakness. What I find beautiful in a film, like at the end of La France, is a character’s complete exhaustion.
RS: Huppert is impressive here.
SB: I’m really happy with what she did. She was so stressed because at first I wanted it to be a ten-minute fixed shot just of her. So she had to know the lines by heart; of course she’s very good, but it was hard for her, she doesn’t understand this type of text, she learns it almost phonetically. Since I saw that she was really upset, I thought what if we finally filmed each of the students in close-up, one by one? And of course there is Malik’s chair, or rather his absence, in the center, and the peak of the scene comes when she talks to that empty chair. I thought, if I can move you with an empty chair, it’s not bad.
RS: I’d like to go back to a 2010 piece you wrote for the film journal Vertigo. You write that the question behind Tip Top was, What happy things make you want to break everything? How would you formulate the question behind Mrs. Hyde?
SB: One of the problems with Tip Top was that when you’d ask people what the subject of the film was, they weren’t able to answer; it’s not obvious. With Mrs. Hyde it’s very simple; if you ask anyone what the subject behind the film is, they’d tell you it’s about education. So there is a simple relationship to the subject, which spares us from thinking of a question. (laughs) No, I’m messing around. I wrote that piece a year before shooting the film. But it’s true that it was a bit theoretical. If I had to find one question it’s maybe, what is the difference between a good and a bad teacher, and what does one need to be a good teacher? Or why is it so hard to be a teacher? Why is it not natural?
RS: Inspired by the original question and the very last shot, I formulated one: Which sad things make you want to burn everything?
Serge Bozon: Oh, well done. Bravo. I will quote you.