“La Syndicaliste” – Under siege [MOVIE REVIEW]
“La Syndicaliste,” directed by Jean-Paul Salomé based on the book written by Caroline Michel-Aguirre, tells the horrific but true story of Maureen Kearney, the dedicated head of a union representing workers employed by Areva, France’s nuclear power company. Maureen fought tenaciously to protect employees throughout Europe who maintained the vast empire of French nuclear power plants.
Her story is interesting enough on its own—an Irish woman married to a French man who worked her way up from teaching to a position of power that put her on equal footing as she negotiated with the government ministers tasked with funding the operations. But it was her belief in her union and the gravity of her position that eventually put her in the crosshairs of powerful forces who needed her influence undermined.
This is the well-told story of a whistleblower who was unable to combat the steamroller coming for her. Through a source, she learned that there were secret dealings that would place Areva under the control of Electricité de France (EDF), effectively eliminating its independence and endangering the jobs of the majority of its engineers and laborers. Further, EDF was in secret negotiations with China to sell them their superior technology in nuclear energy. Kearney was too well aware that there were independent and powerful businessmen with financial interests in the China deal who were greasing the palms of ministers with the ultimate control of the merger. It is the lengths they went to silence Kearney, and a horrific scenario it is, that drive this narrative. But let me stop there because this true story is, at heart, a mystery thriller out of which no one wins, least of all Kearney.
Salomé has assembled an excellent cast led by the incomparable Isabelle Huppert. As Kearney she is chic, fashionably dressed and cool, in all senses of the word. I was quite skeptical. I mean who wouldn’t want to be portrayed by the gorgeous Huppert, one of the finest actors on the planet? And that wardrobe does not scream union leader. And yet, looking up the real Maureen Kearney, you will find a chicly dressed, serene blonde, almost as beautiful as Huppert. The only major difference is that Maureen was Irish and, no doubt, spoke French with an accent. Huppert’s performance of this heroic woman is filled with sang froid, self-possession confounded by doubt. It is a very effective portrayal of a woman whose very being is undermined, psychologically and physically, by unnamed and unseen men of power cowed by her leadership and moral standing.
In supporting roles, Salomé had the benefit of many well-regarded French actors, most of whom will be unknown to an American audience. Grégory Gadebois, in the thankless role of Kearney’s husband, breathes life into his character with silent support. François Deladonchamps plays a composite of all the police officers who undermined and cast doubt on her case as he bungled, possibly deliberately, the investigation. Yvan Attal is a veritable portrait of a politician in over his head who willingly does the bidding of corrupt superiors while attempting to eliminate the influence of the politically and intellectually superior Kearney. He makes you feel his heart palpitations. And my perennial favorite, Gilles Cohen, plays the lawyer who defends Kearney in her final trial. Cohen grounds the final stretch with his nonplussed manner and belief in his client. A minimalist, he can convey any emotion with the raising of an eyebrow or the slight movement of his lips.“La Syndicaliste” is straightforward, chronological storytelling that in some ways is its weakness. Perhaps better suited to television, it is still a compelling narrative with the benefit of a major star to guide you past those disadvantages. There is a bit too much emphasis on Kearney’s wardrobe, but its excellent depiction of the French justice (or injustice) system gives the overall story its depth and significance.
In French with English subtitles.
Opening December 8 at the Laemmle Royal.