tue 23/07/2024

La Syndicaliste review - a star outshines her conspiracy thriller script | reviews, news & interviews

La Syndicaliste review - a star outshines her conspiracy thriller script

La Syndicaliste review - a star outshines her conspiracy thriller script

Isabelle Huppert's real-person role doesn't match her star wattage

Too dazzling: Isabelle Huppert in 'La Syndicaliste'Le Bureau

On the face of it, La Syndicaliste (aka The Sitting Duck) is a conspiracy thriller that runs along familiar tracks: clever woman begins to suspect dirty dealings at a very high level in the high-stakes industry she works for and lands herself in a dangerous mess. There are anonymous phonecalls, menacingly bright headlights behind her… Think Silkwood in stilettos.

But the face of this film is Isabelle Huppert, whose looks – never more flawlessly presented than here – are impossible to upstage. However hard the film tries to assure us it is documenting a true tale of grim corporate skulduggery and vicious misogyny, there is this luminous star with bright crimson Greta Garbo lips at the heart of it giving it full wattage, redolent of dramas more intriguing than this one.

As with Silkwood, the basically true story here is located in the nuclear power industry. Maureen Kearney (Huppert) was employed by the French nuclear power company Areva for 20 years, first as a teacher who gave its internationally based employees English lessons (she is Irish, married to a French sound engineer), then as the Areva workers’ top union rep, a perfect fit with her left-wing background and fierce commitment to defending workers’ rights. These are jeopardised in 2012 when she learns about a secret deal made between the recently appointed boss of Areva, the CEO of the French state-owned energy company EDF and a Chinese company, to enable the latter to become the world’s leading constructor of nuclear power stations, at the expense of 50,000 Areva jobs. Kearney goes on the attack.

The morning before she is due to tell President Hollande what she knows about the secret deal, she is sadistically attacked and sexually assaulted at her home in a comfortable faubourg of Paris. Her reaction is to look out from behind her statement spectacles with a blank yet piercing stare; just as her raped character was in 2016’s Elle, she is in survivor mode. She wants to continue with her life without a fuss – if her cleaning lady hadn’t called the police when she found her taped to a chair, Kearney admits, she herself wouldn’t have reported the crime. She is seen pointedly applying more of the bright crimson lipstick she had been liberally putting on when attacked, a statement of defiance.

Isabelle Hupper in La SyndicalisteHuppert looks enough like the real Kearney, with her blonde bangs and specs, to make her casting credible; and she can easily play ultra-feisty, despite her petite build, as Kearney could. Yet she inevitably shifts the focus of the film. With her radiant face, neat short-skirted suits and exotic earrings, she’s every inch a star.

You don’t believe there are real lenses in her elegant eyewear and suspect that her neat chignon, its swirls lovingly stared at by the camera, is a deliberate choice. She’s a Hitchcock blonde, Kim Novak and Tippi Hedren rolled into one: an enigma whose behaviour is possibly as much of an act as theirs were in Vertigo and Marnie. 

There’s scope for another great Huppert role here, and briefly you think you are going to get it. Kearney’s post-assault blankness and impassivity are happily interpreted by police chief Brémont (Pierre Deladonchamps, pictured right with Huppert and François Loriquet, far right, as the public prosecutor) and his colleagues, all of whom are male (barring one bright young female policewoman, who is ignored), as a sign that she is guilty of the worst possible crime: she isn’t a good victim.

Has the first half, setting up the background to the Chinese deal, the main players in the politics and the industry involved in it, been a false trail? Is Kearney not merely idiosyncratic but mentally disturbed, as these powerful figures in the French establishment are trying to claim? Did her assault happen? Why did she highlight key passages in her favourite reading, crime fiction?

This would have made a meatier role for Huppert to tackle, but the psychological thriller strand is soon exhausted, and the conspiracy thriller takes over again – Kearney now a complainant doing the tortuous rounds of the French legal system to clear her name. From here Jean-Paul Salomé's film briskly moves to a crowd-pleasing conclusion, giving Kearney her day in court. (The lawyer who defends her is played by Gilles Cohen, a familiar face from Spiral and Le Bureau, who gives the scene the dramatic edge of a good policier, rather than the mundanity of a real trial.)

Perhaps the twists and turns of the conspiracy are of more interest to French viewers, familiar with the main players and steeped in the details of Kearney’s fight to be heard. It was a dire event, one that France and every other country in need of nuclear power must now regret ever happened, the film warns us in an end title, for giving the Chinese pole position in the industry. But the book that sparked the film, by investigative journalist Caroline Michel-Aguirre, might be better at setting all that out.

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