Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Tue Feb 13, 2024 8:35 pm 
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ISABELLE HUPPERT AND MARINA FOÏS IN LA SYNDICALISTE

A solid political and economic thriller starring Isabelle Huppert in her prime.. (Les Échos).

Solid and, we hope, entertaining and well made - or why should we bother? Huppert's character here, Maureen Kearney, is labor representative for Areva, the French-based nuclear multinational. She is first seen acting as an advocate in Hungary against a trashy, macho factory owner. Back home, Anne Luvergeon (Marina Foïs), her superior and closest ally, retires, just when the supervisor is replaced by a devious and nasty type, Luc Oursel (Yvan Attal), who turns out to be trying to sell out to the Chinese. This Kearney aggressively opposes. From then on things move fast and the word "thriller" used by the writer for the French journal Les Échos starts to resonate. Small, blonde-haired, bespectacled, and immaculately dressed, Huppert is the embodiment of cool, with a dynamic energy that appears effortless. But Kearney is sorely tested.

Who is Jean-Paul Salomé? A veteran in the French film industry, who started out working with Claude Lelouch. More relevantly, he directed Huppert a couple of years ago in La daronne aka Mama Weed, about a translator for the narcs who turns drug dealer. It's a delicious role for Huppert, both cozy and adept, comedic and tongue in cheek about morality like the great eight-season Showtime Mary Louise Parker series, "Weeds." This one is less cozy and more intellectual than that. In 2004 Salomé directed Arsène Lupin with a solid cast, Romain Duris, Kristin Scott Thomas, Pascal Greggory, Eva Green. Entertaining stuff, without great artistic pretension. And that is what this is too, but the subject matter is more serious. And, where it not executed with such style, a little dry.

This is a story of female empowerment - or perhaps disempowerment. A French reviewer has called this film "d’Erin Brockovich à la française." When the film begins, Mme Kearney has been assaulted in a sexually humiliating way. We go back to find out the whole context and move forward to treat it in more detail.

Perhaps too much detail, perhaps not enough. Lee Marshall in Screen Daily speaks of it as "this plodding but inexorable Gallic melange of whistleblower drama and procedural noir, with its indulgent two-hour running time." He explains the filmmakers going with this on the principle that if you have a good enough story and a lead as good as Huppert, "why complicate things?" But Glenn Kenny argues on Ebert that because of the complexity of this real-life story based on the book by Caroline Michel-Aguirre - an investigation never fully resolved - this is a case where, as with Michael Mann's classic 1999 Big Tobacco whistleblower film The Insider, which runs two hours and thirty-seven minutes, this one, a mere two hours, would have done well to run to similar length.

Salomé convnicingly juggles a lot of information, anyway, with many investigative scenes, scenes with allies (mainly Luvergeon),with the odious bureaucratic enemies (notably Oursel), and establishment of Kearney's inner family, notably Giles Hugo (Gregory Gadebois), her large, comforting musician and sound engineer husband, their obstreperous teenage daughter Fiona (Mara Taquin), and Alto, their elderly dog.

What emerges is that the investigators and members of the gendarmerie, led by Adjudant-chef Nicolas Brémont (Pierre Deladonchamps of Stranger by the Lake and Sorry Angel) who look into Kearney's rape-assault wind up decidingto put the blame on her, claiming - successfully - that she fabricated the event. The victim is successfully blamed.

Okay, let's say she carved the letter "A" in her abdomen with the knife and inserted the knife handle-first in her vagina - but how did she tie herself up? But - aided by her shrink's file on her, which, astonishingly, he turns over to the investigators, they find she is fragile and has had substance issues, so it can be argued that she is unstable - or very tough, but also vulnerable.

It's a mix the chameleonic Isabelle has got covered. But not everyone will think this cool, immaculately styled figure fits their idea of a labor union advocate. And this isn't fun like Erin Brockovich. It isn't as good a story or as satisfying a movie either. But Salomé's decision to present it straight may be right. It is an astonishing example of a woman being blamed for her own rape, and eventually fighting back, and Isabelle Huppert plays it with her own kind of steely perfection.

La Syndicaliste, 121 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 2, 2022 and showed at many mostly European festivals. Its limited US theatrical Mpw opening (by Kino Lorber) was Dec. 1, 2023. It opened Feb. 2, 2024 in San Francisco. Now available in the US online on multiple platforms. Metacritic rating: 50%.

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