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La Syndicaliste: Huppert Elevates a Lumpy Political Thriller

Sometimes we think we can change the world and pay too much”, says Maureen Kearney (Isabelle Huppert) at one point in La Syndicaliste. She knows what she is talking about, having been a victim of crime and miscarriage of justice after acting as a whistleblower in 2012. This is a true story of Kearney, an Irish-born trade-unionist at nuclear power group Areva, informing the world of a secret contract between the company and China, and then suffering the consequences. Adapting the script from a book by Caroline Michel-Aguirre, director Jean-Paul Salomé aims to dramatise a rather complicated politically-charged scenario through one’s person fight for truth and against the establishment. And, despite more than a few bumps along the way, La Syndicaliste still manages to impress, thanks to Huppert’s stoic performance.

Isabelle Huppert has always excelled in controversial stories not without sexual elements (Violette Nozière, The Piano Teacher, Elle), and in roles like La Cérémonie requiring much stamina and character nuance. In Elle, she played a no-nonsense business woman who wanted to be taken seriously in her male-dominated video game company environment. In La Syndicaliste, she is also a strong-willed and determined trade-unionist defending the women’s working rights and doing so in an environment where profit always comes before any ethical or moral considerations. The main character in both films suffers a horrific sexual assault at home, but the consequences of it are very different. What these two films have in common is that in one diminutive, fragile-looking woman emerges a steely side not to be underestimated. Isabelle Huppert is probably one of the very few actresses working today who can fuse effortlessly delicate beauty, vulnerability, inner strength and cold detachment and, thus, for her Maureen is a perfect role.

Isabelle Huppert as Maureen Kearney playing cards at home in La Syndicaliste.
Isabelle Huppert as Maureen Kearney in La Syndicaliste. Photo: courtesy Kino Lorber.

After Kearney uncovers a shocking conspiracy involving her employer and its ties to China, she lets the world know all about it, but also faces much pressure and intimidation in return. While anonymous calls and threats multiply, Kearney’s devoted husband Gilles (Grégory Gadebois) and supportive daughter Fiona (Mara Taquin) are always there at her side helping her go through the worst of it. And, the worst does come one morning when Kearney is sexually assaulted at home.

If the film’s first half is a hectic exposé of Areva’s shifts in power in the early 2010s and Maureen’s uncovering of the secret deal, the second half slows down considerably, coming to a virtual standstill and presenting a tepid look into Maureen’s single-handed fight to secure justice after her vicious assault. The fact of the matter is that she is simply not believed, and it does not help her case that she sees a psychiatrist, takes certain medication, as well as reads crime novels in her free time. The film’s shift in focus from the study of corporate greed vs. ethics and workers’ rights to the examination of holes in the French investigatory procedures is rather sudden, and the unevenness in pacing is oddly telling. It also does not help that, apart from Huppert who brings much complexity to her role in La Syndicaliste, none of the actors convince us of the unfolding events and one horrific situation turns into a much overstated one.

Grégory Gadebois as Gilles and Mara Taquin as Fiona sitting in court in film La Syndicaliste.
Grégory Gadebois as husband Gilles and Mara Taquin as daughter Fiona in La Syndicaliste. Photo: courtesy Kino Lorber.

What is heard clearly, though, is the film’s message that, especially in rape cases, victims have often been victimised twice—first by the crime, and second by the criminal justice system. Far from being a vivid political thriller about one big energy corporation’s faults and possible corruption, the film soon transforms into a quiet examination of the nature of female victimhood in France. La Syndicaliste touches upon the criminal justice system’s bias in relation to female victims, especially those without a clean previous record or those who were victims of sexual crime before. And, even if it does so only in passing observations, Huppert’s screen presence and quiet conviction make her perfect to champion the rights of the hidden and voiceless. “I wasn’t a good victim”, says Maureen at one point. The question is not so much the crime or its proof, but, without obvious traces left (or even with them!), the issue is how believable is the one against whom that crime was committed.

Jean-Paul Salomé is known for directing films based on real stories. His film The Chameleon of 2010 tried to uncover the puzzling case of French impersonator Frédéric Bourdin, and his film Female Agents of 2008 aimed to shed light on the lives of female resistance fighters during the World War II. In this second collaboration with Huppert after Mama Weed of 2020, Salomé also seems to make much effort, but his co-written script also takes much liberty with the original true story (Huppert’s cast as an Irish woman is odd for one thing), and the dramatisation does not always land in intended places. Still, Huppert’s presence and committed performance make the film worth watching. It is quite remarkable that, in the actress’s fifth decade of full-time acting, she still shows no signs of slowing down, and even if La Syndicaliste is not that the Huppert film to watch, it is certainly a Huppert film to watch.

Written by Diana Tuova

I am a critic and writer with a background in law. I run two criticism-focused websites: Spotlight on Film and Thoughts on Papyrus, and love films by Tarkovsky, Ozu, Bresson and Buñuel. Apart from my passion for film and writing, I also love travelling, reading classics and learning Japanese.

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