I’ll admit I didn’t expect to see an overt Vertigo homage in the middle of this rather matter-of-fact Isabelle Huppert procedural. Fixating for a second on the bun on the back of her noticeable-through-the-runtime blonde wig, La Syndicaliste affords some time, in the middle of all its backroom dealings and court hearings, to ponder her as a star and film history. For all the dramatic proceedings surrounding her, the icon––who’s essentially been anointed France’s Meryl Streep (though far less annoying and mechanical a performer)––is given some opportunities to “serve” throughout; chiefly she looks very poised answering her cell phone.
She portrays real-life figure Maureen Kearney, who as a rep on behalf of the nuclear-workers union (for all of France’s faults, they do still place an emphasis on the environmentally conscious source of energy there) was a figure under constant threat from the country’s corporate establishment. But despite the nation shifting from the right-wing Sarkozy to left-wing Hollande in the early goings of its narrative, she’s never safe from the abuses of power. Just as she’s about to expose a treacherous deal the nuclear company is making with China, she’s raped by an unknown assailant in her own home, with an A (for Areva, the company she’s exposing) carved into her stomach.
The film shifts gears and forms two distinct halves: first is the journalistic process; second the fall-out from her sexual assault, where the corrupt police and courts will do anything to discredit her. Working as something of a companion piece to Huppert’s Oscar-nominated turn in Elle, Maureen’s life gradually slips into great turmoil yet is still handled with such terseness on behalf of both the characterization and this star’s performance.
La Syndicaliste re-teams Huppert with Jean-Paul Salome, director of Mama Weed (my sole memory of which is notorious critic Armond White accusing it of “globalism”). Likely if it were made by a name director I’d be more inclined to pin this down as “late style.” After all, the formal approach to investigation is closer to the modesty of Best Picture winner Spotlight than the architectural bliss of the journalistic-thriller gold standard All the President’s Men. Though it does, through a collection of such bland corporate spaces, create its own kind of simmering dread, one which manifests into more overt violence, even if that’s mostly offscreen.
The choice of perspective––leaving the workers she’s ostensibly fighting for mostly offscreen––may bother some. Though easy as an outsider who casually keeps up with goings-on in France to make allusions to the Yellow Vest movement and the recent general strike, I can’t pin down all the socio-political intricacies at hand. But for being well-paced and letting title cards fill in the gaps, La Syndicaliste never left me lost or bored.
Yes, its rather reserved form may draw some television-movie comparisons, but as a complicated story told succinctly and with nary a trace of sentimentality, it’s an admirable film. And through it all, Huppert still finds subtle ways to disappear into and elevate the narrative.
La Syndicaliste enters a limited release on Friday, December 1.