‘The Sitting Duck (La Syndicaliste)’ Review – Venice Film Festival – Deadline
Maureen Kearney’s story is unbelievable. It is a story of unbelief, in fact — of denial, cover-ups, corruption and injustice directed at a small woman who was just doing her job. She’s played with an electric stillness by the great Isabelle Huppert in Jean-Paul Salome’s Venice Film Festival Horizons title The Sitting Duck (La Syndicaliste). There are still plenty of people who openly doubt her story, including people on her own side of politics. Perhaps it would be easier all round if it weren’t true.
Kearney was a union officer working within the partly French government-owned energy company Areva, which included a significant nuclear reactor business with projects all over the world. (Areva was recently restructured, with its nuclear business becoming part of Electricité de France.) Kearney was no Karen Silkwood; she posed no threat to the concept of nuclear power. She maintains she was targeted when she was working to expose a secret manufacturing deal the company was negotiating with China.
Her job was to protect tens of thousands of European workers. She was doing just that.
It was the secrecy and alleged seediness of the deal, only vaguely summarized in this film but apparently conducted through a dubious international broker, that made her the sitting duck of the title. According to her story, first recounted by journalist Caroline Michel-Aguirre in her 2019 book La Syndicaliste, she began to get threatening phone calls. That came with the territory for a union organizer, she maintained. A passing motorcyclist smashed her car window. She could take it. Her work, as someone in the film observes of her, was her adrenalin.
In 2012, Kearney was attacked her in her own home, blindfolded, tied to a chair and gagged. A large letter A was carved on her stomach and the knife then inserted handle-first into her vagina. Sometime later, her cleaning lady found and untied her. The police launched an investigation. Gradually, however, her story was turned against her. An Areva executive described her as crazy; her medical records, which revealed her history of alcoholism, were bandied about; even her fondness for detective novels was questioned. Soon the investigating officers were accusing her of having staged the attack and effectively raping herself. Unbelievable, but true.
Overnight, this 60-something Irish woman had gone from being a victim to a suspect. Afraid for her family and under heavy pressure from interrogators, she even confessed, but withdrew the confession before signing it. The result was that in 2017 — French courts move slowly — she was tried and given a suspended sentence and large fine for wasting police time. Her life was shattered.
While the case was going on, so did the attacks — including an unexplained fire in the cellar where she stored her files — and repeated humiliating medical examinations supposed to prove that she could have spat out that knife if she hadn’t wanted it to stay there. Her enemies had, however, underestimated the strength of will of a wily old unionist. By 2018, a new chapter of resistance began.
Salomé has chosen to tighten the focus of La Syndicaliste on to Kearney’s person: her trials and many tribulations, the familial love she shares with her easygoing husband and passionately loyal daughter, her fondness for card nights, her friendship with the woman executive at the head of Areva who is maneuvered out of her job at the same time as she is being harassed. It may allude to something like the Deep State, but this is the story of one individual. A heroine, in fact.
Huppert, who can convey an ocean of feeling with the twitch of an eyebrow, embodies this unassuming heroism so effectively that you hardly notice that a much bigger story has been allowed to become a blur. There is plenty of the clutter of the police thriller: tiny twists and turns in the investigation, her decision to confess and then to withdraw the confession, her meetings with this lawyer and then that one, her wavering discussions about whether or not to appeal. It is never less than intriguing, but this accumulation of events makes the film feel curiously longer than it is.
Perhaps this is because you long to get out of the confinement of this single case into the wider world of its significance. We want to understand the nature of those deals, to nail who benefited from the money trail, to know whose feet were tangling under Areva’s table. Very likely this information is impossible to find, but that doesn’t dampen the desire to know it. Meanwhile, Kearney’s attackers have never been found and nobody is trying to find them. Who were they? Who paid them? There is a strong sense, as you leave Sitting Duck, that there is a good deal of this story yet to be told.
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