Isabelle Huppert stars in Jean-Paul Salomé’s thriller and nuclear-industry investigation La Syndicaliste, based on the recent true story of French union official Maureen Kearney.
Powerby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
There are some roles that only Isabelle Huppert could play and this is one of them.
In La Syndicaliste (which translates as The Union Official, also called The Sitting Duck in English when it premiered in Venice in 2022) Huppert is forthright Maureen Kearney, a union leader responsible for 50,000 workers at Areva, France’s huge nuclear power company. The film is based on the true story of events, based on the book of the same name by Caroline Michel-Aguirre, an investigative journalist.
Kearney, with her trademark blonde chignon and defiantly red lipstick,
became a whistleblower when she revealed a secret deal between the state-owned utility Electricité de France (EDF) and a Chinese power company, which she feared would transfer sensitive nuclear technology from Areva to China and threaten thousands of French jobs. Following her revelations, Kearney was subjected to anonymous threats which culminated in a violent attack on her in her home in 2012. These significant events will likely be better known in France than in Britain but are worthwhile to follow.
La Syndicaliste recreates dedicated Kearney’s driven work life, her friendship with her displaced female CEO (Marina Foïs), which the police could not understand and deliberately misinterpreted, who was promised a role in François Hollande’s new government, which did not materialise
and was replaced by an aggressively misogynistic man (Yvan Attal).
In fact, misogyny is the overriding theme of the film and Kearney’s story, resulting in Kearney being ridiculously accused by police of “bearing false witness” – wasting police time – by having staged her own rape and lying about it. Then it’s ambiguous – perhaps it was her husband? Another thing they could not understand was why Kearney did not react to the attack in the way they expected. Basically, she was a victim who became a suspect and then the accused.
The effect on her was terrible. A formerly fearless woman was broken, until eventually she rose again to challenge her conviction, and government and corporate corruption in court.
The first half of La Syndicaliste is taken up by the revelations from the behind-the-scenes political and corporate links and wheeling and dealing between them. Although the film starts with the shock of the vicious and sexual assault, the assault is reprised at its midway turning point in more detail. It is partly reminiscent of Huppert’s role in Elle, but very, very different. The second half of the film is dominated by the repercussions of the assault on Maureen herself, her family (her daughter and an incredibly supportive husband, Grégory Gadebois),
the unnecessarily humiliating medical examinations, brutal police interrogations (Pierre Deladonchamps) and two subsequent court cases, at last with a committed advocate (Gilles Cohen) and the evidence of an overlooked female police whistleblower (Aloïse Sauvage).
La Syndicaliste can be gripping, although at times it seems to move very slowly. But it excels as true life and an vehicle for Huppert’s uncompromising and always watchable talent.
La Syndicaliste premiered at the Venice Biennale and is released on 30 June 2023 in the UK.