La Syndicaliste

The story of Maureen Kearney is one of the most confounding scandals of the present day. Kearney was a labor representative for workers in the French nuclear industry. In the early part of the 2010s, the Irish-born Kearney discovered dealings that would throw France’s nuclear sector into the hands of Chinese interests> one of many results would be a lot of workers made redundant, that is, fired. When she tried to expose these dealings, she was threatened. And one day she was assaulted in her home, blindfolded, and tied to a chair. She was discovered hours later by her housekeeper with the letter “A” crudely cut into her abdomen, and a knife handle inserted into her vagina.

It gets worse, as chronicled in fact-based drama “La Syndicaliste,” which is being marketed elsewhere under the not inapt English title “The Sitting Duck.” This is the second picture that director Jean-Paul Salomé has made with protean actress Isabelle Huppert, and it’s considerably more grave than their prior collaboration, the pot-dealing comedy-drama “Mama Weed.” It’s also not quite as successful.

This story, while certainly confoundingly gripping, was, in real-life and here, full of twists that even the most adept of cinematic storytellers would have a hard time cleaning up. The story took the better part of a decade to resolve, and even today it is not fully resolved. One of the scenario’s main villains, energy executive Luc Oursel, died in the middle of the conflict Kearney initiated. This decisive political player, portrayed here with exemplary understatement by Yvan Attal, might well have been complicit in the attack on Kearney. As it happens, the men who perpetrated the assault still have yet to be identified.

The movie toggles between corporate intrigue, and a lot of “who-do-you-trust” back and forth, and the family dynamic in Kearney’s home. Her husband is an affable sound engineer and musician Giles Hugo (Gregory Gadebois), and Maureen butts’ heads with one teen daughter in a conventional fashion. Kearney is an ex-drinker with a history of emotional turmoil. And soon after she reports her assault, the cops, influenced by forces that want to silence her, start floating the idea that Kearney committed the assault on herself, for attention to her cause.

The scenes in which a male cop, and later a female judge, try to undermine Kearney’s integrity have a boo-hiss energy that’s bracing. Huppert’s portrayal of Kearney is quiet and cagey, although on the occasions that she speaks English—that is, with a pretty heavy French accent—she produces a bit of cognitive dissonance.

But the filmmakers do seem frequently flummoxed by the scale of the narrative, and you get a sense of them trying to cram a lot into a two-hour running time. Throughout the movie, the themes felt familiar. I realized I was being reminded of Michael Mann’s 1999 corporate-whistleblower masterpiece “The Insider,” which took a good hundred-and-thirty-seven minutes to unfold its gnarly tale. I know it’s not a thing, especially nowadays apparently, to ask that movies be longer, but “La Syndicaliste” might have benefitted from a bit more expansiveness.

In limited theatrical release Friday.


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