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Nuclear Option

Guy Ferrandis/Le Bureau Films

La Syndicaliste (2022)

While “La Syndicaliste” cannot pretend to be an act of justice, it is an act of respect, as is every attempt to redress a wrong by making good art about it. But at its core this is a movie about work. Gainful employment, health care, clean water and cheap utilities: we forget just how much work goes into all of these things. It’s the same as the amount of work that goes into a clean home, a happy family, good schools and a dignified old age but on a national scale. As you observe Maureen Kearney (Isabelle Huppert) assert the truth – not her truth, the truth – over and over again to indifferent power, you think about how much work everything takes.

But while power might be indifferent to human feeling and human consequences, workers are not. There’s a small scene where Maureen finds herself in an all-night rest stop, making small talk with the landlady (Rébecca Finet) about detective novels, which they both enjoy. Crime fiction is the only part of current literature that treats work with respect – both the work of the police but equally the working lives and financial concerns of the people affected by the crimes. It’s no coincidence that a woman whose career is defined by other people’s jobs would be so fascinated with it. And it’s the respect shown in “La Syndicaliste” that has the greatest impact.

In large French organizations, union representatives are members of the board; this is by law, not out of the goodness of anyone’s heart, lest anyone think the socialism for which France is renowned hasn’t been fought for, inch by inch. In 2012 Maureen is the head of the union (the syndicate) for Areva, a national power company with 50,000 employees. Her deputy Jean-Pierre (François-Xavier Demaison) is the only person at work with whom she speaks informally, despite her constant liaison with the C.E.O., Anne (Marina Foïs), and her deputy, Luc (Yvan Attal). These businesspeople are so high-profile they are regularly discussed in the national press, though Maureen snaps at her husband, Gilles (Grégory Gadebois), when he alerts her to this. But it’s thanks to this profile of Maureen’s that a whistleblower calling himself Tirésias (Christian Hecq) gets in touch. He worked for a rival energy company that’s in the process of merging with Areva, making secret deals with the Chinese about nuclear power plants (which the French power grid is based on) which, if they go ahead, will eliminate thousands of French jobs.

Maureen is quick to understand the seriousness of Tirésias’s information, and important enough that she and Jean-Pierre can meet with the relevant government minister (Christophe Paou) to lay out her concerns. Anne is pushed out of her role and Luc is promoted, but Maureen isn’t daunted, not even when Luc loses his temper during a board meeting and throws a chair at her. Director Jean-Paul Salomé, who cowrote the script with Fadette Drouard, manages to stay dispassionate, underplaying the outrages, so our feelings about them spool out slowly for maximum effect. But trouble at work is the least of it. One night, Maureen’s car window is smashed and her handbag stolen. Her daughter, Fiona (Mara Taquin), notices a car outside their house. And then the trouble forces its way inside.

Some male reviewers have been struck how, after the medical exam is over, the first thing Maureen does is reapply her lipstick, checking her appearance in a compact mirror. But these reviewers probably won’t know that this is an act of reasserting the self and the self’s dominion over the body, which is especially important when the body has been violated, mutilated or both. This combination of fragility and fearsome control is Ms. Huppert’s precise wheelhouse; and she is so good here that some people will struggle to appreciate the churning effort it takes for Maureen to maintain control.

But it’s thanks to that personal control that the police investigating the crime, headed by Brémont (Pierre Deladonchamps) become suspicious, ignoring the observations of the only woman on the squad, Chambard (Aloïse Sauvage). Among other things, Maureen’s habit of highlighting favorite passages in the crime fiction she likes to read is turned against her. As in the other famous based-on-a-true-story nuclear-energy-whistleblower movie, “Silkwood,” the rot goes all the way to the top. But unlike Karen Silkwood, Maureen Kearney is still alive, and not going down without a fight. Though it really is a punishing battle, and as Maureen reels from one devastating blow to another, Gilles never flinches. If she is Rocky, he is Adrian; and this depiction of their marriage is refreshing. He’s not remotely emasculated by his wife’s extraordinary career, fully aware of the aspects of her past she prefers not to discuss, uncowed by the unpleasant actions of the police, and only concerned for her wellbeing as the trouble piles up. Mr. Gadebois makes all of these acts carefully considered choices, which just what you’d want in a partner, someone who’s on your side because they want to be. Cinematographer Guy Ferrandis/Le Bureau Films. generally keeps the camera steady to allow us to consider the actors at work, only occasionally focusing on items of importance such as a dropped lipstick or a carefully pinned updo.

The gendered nature of the items of importance is emphasized by our first image of Maureen, surrounded by an entirely female group of workers at a Hungarian power plant. She is a woman of her word, she tells them, and she won’t allow them to be treated unfairly. Later, a character played by Alexandra Maria Lara returns the favor. Of course despite all the solidarity on show women are not entirely to be trusted; for all Anne’s confidences over sushi she and Maureen are never friends; and it’s a female judge (Andréa Bescond) who delights in humiliating Maureen publicly. But it’s an unforgivable fact that none of what happened to Maureen would ever have happened to a man. Not in a million years. The question here is not really who did it; and it’s certainly not why things happened as they did. It’s how it was ever possible, inch by creeping inch. And it all builds to a final shot that achieves what very few based-on-a-true-story movies have done: it becomes that compact mirror. All the work that went into “La Syndicaliste” was worth it.


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