The Movie Waffler New Release Review - LA SYNDICALISTE | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - LA SYNDICALISTE

La Syndicaliste review
A trade unionist becomes embroiled in a scandal after exposing secrets of the nuclear power industry.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Jean-Paul Salomé

Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Grégory Gadebois, Marina Fois, Yvan Attal, Pierre Deladonchamps

La Syndicaliste poster

Jean-Paul Salomé's (with co-writer Fadette Drouard) corporate thriller opens in the aftermath of a severe attack; an act of repulsive cruelty which will define La Syndicaliste's narrative and inaugurate the film's complex mediation on how violence against women is perceived. In an in media res bustle of forensic activity a wall eyed husband is spoken to in hushed tones by a crime scene investigator while blue swaddled colleagues brush, dust and scrutinise his comfortable home, with each fraught moment building further anticipatory dread. We discover that in this ornate maison, the husband's wife, Maureen Kearney (Isabelle Huppert), has been brutalised: assaulted, tied to a chair and the letter A carved into her stomach with a kitchen knife which was subsequently inserted into her vagina. Her attacker advised her that this was merely a caution and left Kearney bound until a maid discovered her six hours later...

La Syndicaliste review

Kearney is a real-life figure, with La Syndicaliste based on the initial whistleblowing, successive intimidation and ultimate trial for "false reporting of a crime" which the trade unionist ("syndicaliste") experienced. In 2011, Kearney discovered a conspiracy involving French nuclear power group Areva (where Kearney was shop steward), the state-owned utility company EDF and China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGNPC). Essentially, a proposed deal would mean not only huge job losses for Areva's French staff, but also the allocation of sensitive nuclear technology to China - uh oh. Kearney's attempts to do the right thing, however, led to the sickening events detailed in the opening. Kearney maintains that the attack she suffered in December 2011 was a direct result of her bringing the Chinese deal to light and was "a warning" from Areva. Adapted from the book by Caroline Michel-Aguirre, Salomé's film is an intriguing and uncomfortable take on what happened and how it was received.

We cut back to a few months earlier where Kearney's vocation is established with brisk efficiency. Arguing for the rights for female strikers to collect redundancy payments, she cows a burly suit on a picket line apparently just by virtue of her overwhelming cool. We then see her go on to bemoan the cutting of gender equality seminars from the budget. The events which La Syndicaliste are based upon are recontextualised, quite bluntly, within an ongoing #metoo climate. It's all there: misogyny, gaslighting, intimidation, belittling, sexism, violation, threats, betrayal, institutional sexism, victim blaming… the vile hallmarks of a culture where women are not only victims but cast as malefactors, too.

La Syndicaliste review

With this, the heightened opening leads to a more nuanced arbitration of the crime, which seems less about representing actual events than a serpentine exploration of the ramifications of the assault. Primarily, this is a vehicle for the great Huppert, with events refigured through via this absolute master's imperial star identity. Changes extend from contextual details such as Kearney's Irish nationality being transposed to French, along with the reduced presence in the film of her grown up children (who attested to the intimidation in real life), to the well-established expectations we may have of this fearless and controversial performer, along with her signature roles in films that foreground dark sexual experience.

Crucially, Salomé and Drouard do not show us the rape. This decision, which produces enigma, is consolidated by the dubious presentation of the details surrounding the case: there are no fingerprints or DNA (other than Kearney, her husband and the cleaner), their (gorgeous) German Shepard didn't make a fuss when the assailant entered and there is the question of why the attacker, if he was linked to Areva, would explicate such connections with the carved A. Dispirited by the wilful disbelief of the authorities and ostensibly wanting it all to go away, Kearney initially says that she fabricated the attack, a claim which she soon goes on to retract. It is suggested that Kearney doesn't seem upset enough by events and is duly judged for her coolness and determination as if by not presenting as a gibbering wreck is proof of disingenuity. All of which creates an uneasy ambiguity which is consolidated by Huppert's aloof presence: strong women with absolute and independent resolve are instinctively regarded with suspicion and fear.

La Syndicaliste review

Nonetheless, La Syndicaliste proceeds to walk a narrative tightrope where we are invited to question Kearney, a dynamic mediated by Huppert's persona. Her inscrutability allows us no easy answers regarding whether Kearney was raped, or if she wasn't and is yet nonetheless prepared to jeopardise her life for the greater good by suggesting she was. Radiating her characteristic chilly mysteriousness, Huppert is a fascinating presence. Any other actor in the role may render La Syndicaliste simply the sum of its parts, which is to say, a straightforward drama. Refracted via God Huppert, we enter a murky realm of moral relativity. She is, of course, incredible to look at throughout (best outfits: a diaphanous butterfly-print housecoat, a silk blouse with geometric blue patterns worn as she walks through the crime scene, the fawn jacket at a court appearance), and engenders goose bumps with a simple shrug or a minor twitch of her facial muscles (the aforementioned court scene relies entirely on her iconic visage and its fathomless ability to express emotion and create narrative). As such, La Syndicaliste becomes less of an investigation, not so much a recount and ultimately a showcase for Huppert's tense energy and its elucidation of female experience: "Since when do we demand that men are qualified," Kearney implores as she is surrounded, judged and intimidated by men in false suits and presupposed power.

La Syndicaliste is in UK/ROI cinemas from June 30th.

2023 movie reviews