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La Syndicaliste ★★★



Director: Jean-Paul Salomé

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Gregory Gadebois, Marina Foiss Yvan Attal

Released: 30th June, 2023

Isabelle Huppert is in her element within this uncomfortable thriller depicting the actual life events within the life of Irish National Trade Union representative Maureen Kearney, who became a whistleblower. Set in 2012, La Syndicaliste is based on the eponymous book by Caroline Michel-Aguirre that charts this unjust journey as Kearney is targeted for revealing the truth concerning a corporate nuclear deal. The truly alarming aspect is the speed at which Kearney is denounced and transformed from victim to suspect. Director Jean-Paul Salomé skilfully orchestrates a compelling performance from Huppert as Kearney. La Syndicaliste initially maintains a terse, unsettling dynamic in its bid to encompass multiple genres but struggles under the weight of its themes within the first half before successfully focusing on the political subterfuge and courtroom drama in its second half.

Kearney’s a long-term French resident working for the nuclear company Areva; Kearney’s tale is fascinating. Her role as a union representative enabled her to advocate for the rights of 50,000 workers. As such, Kearney was therefore accustomed to being on the picket line and being that representative voice for justice and employee equality. The film alludes to Kearney’s’ position as a disruptive force within the ranks of senior male leadership, and whilst there was a female ally to protect her, sexism was rife in a workplace where the women were accused of ”sticking together”. Unfortunately, Kearney’s’ personal life became subject to scrutiny when she raised her head above the parapet on receiving information of corruption about a secret nuclear deal involving a French energy giant and a Chinese organisation. Kearney’s’ innate sense of justice compelled her to disclose the data as a matter of public interest to safeguard the employees’ roles within her remit, ultimately to her detriment. La Syndicaliste is gripping in its use of reverse chronology to unveil a frustrating state of affairs directed towards Huppert’s’ Kearney, likely to provoke sympathy and rage.

The subject of whistleblowing within films is an established genre with historical movies such as Erin Brockovich and Snowdon available to watch. La Syndicaliste neatly slots into the existing canon as it changes tack with its revelatory exposé of the brutal vilification and misogyny levelled towards Kearney’s’ one-woman David v Goliath fight. Indeed, the film does not shy away from depicting the extent of several unnerving incidents with carefully chosen camera angles creating that terror that women will resonate with as bricks and other weapons are thrown through the windows of venues that Kearney attended. It is a traumatising sensation and effectively utilises thriller tropes to convey such heightened emotional stakes onscreen. Huppert convinces the stoic, unflappable Kearney, leading to her description as the wrong type of victim.

Indeed, Huppert’s’ resemblance to the real-life Maureen Kearney is uncanny. She perfectly portrays the blonde fringe, the black framed glasses and the signature red lipstick, seemingly representing that mask and weapon to face the world. The film’s repetition of that symbolic red lipstick motif, with Huppert putting on this lipstick in front of several mirrors and windows, creates the impression of an emotional crutch for Kearney in the face of adversity. The question does arise as to whether this ritual demonstrates her femininity rather than the portrait of an unsympathetic character, given her stoic nature, within the character assassination led by the media.

This notion of femininity within La Syndicaliste and the perception of the authentic, emotional responses that a woman should visibly display in traumatic situations is unsettling. Given the systemic failure of the institutions designed to protect them, this level of character analysis and violent incidents prevents many women from confidently reporting crimes they may have been subject to. La Syndicaliste is a riveting watch as it highlights the depth of the abuse many women encounter in similar scenarios for challenging unethical workplace practices.  

La Syndicaliste is a powerful depiction of the ordeal suffered by whistleblower Maureen Kearney. It shines that spotlight on the levels of institutional sexism embedded within political and corporate workplace structures in a #metoo era. Huppert’s’ Tour de Force performance will likely garner awards and, importantly, ensure that audiences will seek more information about the real-life Maureen Kearney ordeal.

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