La Syndicaliste: Terror at Home, by Scott Nye
Right from the start, La Syndicaliste sets itself apart from the standard whistleblower arc – in a police dispatch call, a housecleaner reports the woman she works for has been tied to a chair, her stomach carved, and she’s been sexually assaulted with a knife handle. As the woman’s husband, Gilles (Grégory Gadebois), arrives home and surveys the scene, realizing what their lives have now become, a swarm of officers, paramedics, and investigators turn over every inch of their house, until finally he can go to his wife, Maureen (Isabelle Huppert), sitting alone, oddly poised if somewhat vacant.
The film then flashes back to show what led to this – Maureen Kearney, a labor representative, found her company was working towards sending more of its operations overseas, costing thousands of jobs for people who depend on her – but it doesn’t take long to catch back up with itself. The conspiracy of it all is ever-present, but the assault is far from the last invasive attack Maureen will endure. Based on a true story, Jean-Paul Salomé’s La Syndicaliste is a portrait of the very personal ramifications Maureen faces not only in trying to stop a corporation from destroying its workforce, but from trying to destroy her too.
Maureen, as she admits, is neither a perfect victim nor a perfect advocate, and Huppert, as always, thrives in embracing her contradictions and shortcomings. Once the police start looking into who she was before the assault – because women are always the subject of the violence done to them – they find innumerable reasons to doubt their story, starting with the unacknowledged but plain fact that it’d make life a lot more convenient for them.
As this tactic ramps up, Maureen is forced to relive the trauma of it again and again and again. Salomé, who cowrote the screenplay with Fadette Drouard (and adapted from the book of the same name by Caroline Michel-Aguirre), smartly keeps us somewhat at a distance, never showing the assault except in brief flashes, a storytelling tactic that gives room for the police’s theory to carry weight while also reflecting Maureen’s stated desire to put it in the past and move on from it.
Huppert, as always, is spectacular, a tiny physical force whose ability to level an uneven playing field with a glance is necessary to counter the organizations Maureen faces. Her capacity both makes Maureen a believable character and, because those institutions will stop at nothing to strike back at her, makes them more threatening. If they’re not afraid of Isabelle Huppert, what do they fear?
Moreover, Huppert is not afraid of the contradictions at play. Maureen is driven and passionate in her work, undeterred by the throngs of men in suits eager to bulldoze her, but she is reflexively combative and neglectful of the way her devotion is taking a toll on her mental health. She tells Gilles early on, before she’s embroiled in the conflict, that she’s ready to retire after a few more years, but one also gets the sense that she can never really give this up; even if she wanted to, she would feel incomplete.
Huppert and Salomé previously collaborated on the striking and lively Mama Weed, and while La Syndicaliste is a heavier affair, they keep a certain sense of play to it. Maureen, as was apparently the case in real life, has a striking sense of fashion and is so attached to her lipstick, the first thing she does after going through the police and medical bureaucracy following her assault is apply it. Julien Hirsch’s cinematography catches and spotlights every point of bright primary color his environments provide, giving the film a unique look amongst the ever-present tide of ripped-from-the-headlines dramas, particularly in the digital era.
La Syndicaliste makes a strong impression as an unusually incisive whistleblower thriller, one that offers no easy resolution to all the pain caused, exploring a plot that turns the protagonist’s crusade personal as a means of diminishing the political. It harkens back to an era of these types of films where “success” gradually becomes less about beating the system than simply staying alive, and suggests every horrid tactic is still fair play when you challenge something too large.