Based on true events, Jean-Paul Salomé’s The Sitting Duck (or La Syndicaliste – ‘The Trade Unionist’ – in its original French title) is a political thriller about tenacious trade unionist Maureen Kearney, played by the fierce, indomitable Isabelle Huppert.
Salomé’s adaptation of Caroline Michel-Aguirre’s investigative book La syndicaliste recounts a case of menacing political intrigue I was shocked to learn I knew nothing about. Kearney is a representative for the French nuclear power firm Areva, fighting tirelessly for the company’s 50,000 employees scattered across sites all over Europe. Her commitment to them takes on heroic form as she’s catapulted into the eye of the storm for exposing a secret deal between Areva’s top brass and the Chinese government. The deal could potentially lead to tens of thousands of job losses for Areva’s French and other European employees.
What follows is a harrowing ordeal of threats, wavering alliances, and finally, a violent break-in to Maureen’s Paris home that leaves her unconscious, mutilated, and sexually violated.
La Syndicaliste’s international strength will surely come from the story’s underrepresentation in English language media, as viewers are treated to this ghastly sequence of events for the first time. The ferocity of Kearney’s dogged determination to seek justice, resolute in the face of threats and cold-shouldering, all coming from men, puts Huppert in her comfort zone. It’s reminiscent of 2016’s Elle, in which a woman vows to find and expose the man who raped her.
For all its narrative strength and Huppert’s natural flair, La Syndicaliste does have its lacklustre moments. We’re made to understand Maureen suffered from alcoholism and has been sober for 20 years, but this trauma is left largely unexplored. Additionally, it must have devastated her relationship with her daughter, a character kept on the periphery for most of the film.
But even with its shortcomings, La Syndicaliste remains worth a watch, thanks to the compelling true story at its core and the equally convincing Huppert entrusted with bringing it to life. Salomé has captured a moment of startling injustice in a film that, despite its familiar tropes, is bound to leave a lasting impression. One can only hope it contributes to a broader conversation about the often silhouetted struggles of whistleblowers, particularly women, who dare to stand against male-dominated systems.