LA SYNDICALISTE Review: Unexpected Take on Whistleblower Thrillers
Isabelle Huppert stars in a film by Jean-Paul Salomé.
On December 17th, 2012, a housekeeper finds her employer tied to a chair in the basement, cut and assaulted with a knife handle.
After enduring a medical exam, the survivor, Maureen Kearney (Isabelle Huppert), puts on her trademark red lipstick as an armor, and offers to recount the details of the attack.
As we are taken several months back, Maureen is a union representative for the French nuclear industry workers, who becomes privy to the secret dealings between French and Chinese nuclear sectors and tries to raise awareness. Maureen already has a sort of a reputation, both in her professional and personal life.
Her family and friends tend to consider her a bit obsessed about work and single-minded, even if her husband (Grégory Gadebois) is almost unconditionally supportive. Yet, in her male-dominated professional field she is constantly blamed for the simple fact of being a woman.
Her whistleblowing efforts earn her even more enemies, slurs and outright threats. And in the aftermath of her attack the investigation quickly gets an unexpected twist as the police try to turn Maureen into the accused and prove she must have faked the assault.
Based on a true story, even though the director Jean-Paul Salomé emphasizes several times via title cards that this account is subjective and certain things were fictionalized for dramatic purposes, La Syndicaliste (also known as The Sitting Duck) faces an ambitious task of fitting the events unfolding throughout several years into two hours of screentime – and mostly manages. Salomé, who’s known for Belphegor: Phantom of the Louvre, Arsène Lupin and Mama Weed, which marked his first collaboration with Isabelle Huppert, opts to jump through the conspiracy thriller bits and head into the emotional territory.
The first part of the story is told through a jigsaw of episodes shot in a way that at first seems utterly uninspired. The action primarily takes place in between office spaces and conference rooms, and there are few things that are less sexy or cinematic than the places of bureaucracy.
This stifling feeling later comes off as an intentional choice, as even rare exterior shots have an oppressing effect with small human figures being juxtaposed with looming buildings that overpower them, just like any system tends to do. Then, Maureen is attacked, and the authors switch their aesthetic gears towards a more intimate look into personal trauma.
Huppert, who is on familiar ground here after Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, is leading the emotional charge, elevating the story as she once again becomes the “inconvenient victim”. She plays Maureen as an actual human woman, i.e., someone who can come off as smart and determined but also flawed and unpleasant at times, which seems to be enough for the police officers, counsels and doctors to question everything about her.
Her behavior is deemed “wrong” for a rape survivor, she’s generally composed when she is expected to be emotional, has a troubled past with the history of depression and alcoholism, and a damning habit of not wearing underwear under pantyhose.
Unlike the attack, which is never shown fully, but through bits and pieces of unsettled memories, the medical exam Maureen has to repeatedly endure is prolonged and feels torturous. Like so many women in the aftermath of assault, she is violated again and again, as both her body and her mind are being called into question and other people rush to make assumptions and conclusions about both.
La Syndicaliste does stumble a bit eventually as it suffers from the curse of struggling to choose an ending and opts to include three of them. The last one is the most unnecessary as it brings the story back to politics, while the movie excels most in exploring the deeply rooted misogyny.
It’s not exactly subtle about what it wants to say, but its forwardness actually plays into the narrative quite effectively. After all, it’s not that often the film’s most macabre moments are centered around gynecological stirrups.
The film opens in theaters December 1 in New York and December 8 in Los Angeles, with expansion to follow, via Kino Lorber. Visit the official site for more information.
- Jean-Paul Salomé
- Fadette Drouard
- Caroline Michel-Aguirre
- Jean-Paul Salomé
- Isabelle Huppert
- Grégory Gadebois
- François-Xavier Demaison