M, 122 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Whether at work as a trade union representative or at home with family, the woman at the heart of this story comes across as a prickly customer. Unlike her musician husband and grown-up children, she seems to thrive on a bit of tension even while playing a round of cards. Though it’s clear they are a tight, loving unit.

The pressure is about to ramp up for her at work at a company in the French nuclear industry, where she is planning to stand for a sixth term as union rep. A large cohort of female employees is facing redundancy without compensation or retraining, and the entire industry has been going through difficult times. Made worse by the recent Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan.

While CEO Anne Lauvergeon (Marina Fois) is in charge at Areva NP, Maureen Kearney (Isabelle Huppert) has a level of protection. But French President atthe time Sarkozy is sending the boss packing, and the formerly male-dominated regime is back in charge. New CEO Luc Oursel (Yvan Attal) is a patronising chauvinist with anger management issues, throwing chairs across the boardroom and grabbing people’s arms when he takes issue with them.

A syndicaliste, the type a certain kind of management would brand a troublemaker

The real Maureen Kearney, on whose life this true story is based, was originally from Ireland. She moved to France, married a Frenchman, Gilles Hugo (played here by Gregory Gadebois) and taught English. At Avera she took up the cudgel for employee rights, becoming a popular union rep, or syndicaliste, the type a certain kind of management would automatically brand as a troublemaker.

There is no hint in Sitting Duck, however, that this charismatic, chic woman is from anywhere other than France. Director Jean-Paul Salome and his lead actress, who did such a terrific job together in the comedy Mama Weed, must have had their reasons.

The screenplay is a collaboration between Salome and Fadette Drouard who based their work on the book, The Trade Unionist (La Syndicaliste) by investigative journalist Caroline Michel-Aguirre. The events that take place began in 2011, when Kearney became aware of a secret deal being made that would allow China access to French nuclear technology.

After Maureen blows the whistle about this, with its looming threat to jobs and covert arrangements that appear to endanger the national interest, she is found bound and gagged in her own home and subjected to a horrifying assault. A capital ‘A’ is carved on her belly, and she is sexually assaulted. She is not discovered for six hours, until her housekeeper arrives.

As the police start investigating, it’s clear that Maureen’s personal history as the victim of a previous rape assault is going to work against her testimony. The team led by a sceptical and impassive Nicolas Bremont (Pierre Deladonchamps) cannot believe that the assailant came to her house without any equipment, using rope, masking tape and ski mask found on site.

A warning to whistleblowers – don’t become one, especially not if you’re female

Furthermore, what goes against Maureen most is her refusal to play the part of the victim, remaining cool and for the most part calm. Piece by piece, the supporting evidence is stripped away from her case. Most remarkable of all, was the preparedness of the police and legal community who assessed her case in court, to believe that Maureen did it. That she tied herself with gaffer tape to the dining chair, and was able to bind her hands behind her, despite a severe shoulder injury. A warning to whistleblowers, that is, don’t become one, especially not if you are female.

It is no surprise at all to see Isabelle Huppert in this edgy role. She thrives on them, in her element as strong and complex characters, making sense of their contradictions. The more difficult the role the better. Like the predatory musician in The Piano Teacher, or the rape victim in Elle who just gets on with things, the plantation owner in Africa risking all as she stays on during civil war. Despite her fragile looks and her diminutive height, her women are indomitable, to be reckoned with.

Maureen Kearney’s battle through the French courts for justice over the years is fascinating. There may be more to her than this version of events reveals, but Huppert’s nuanced performance is superb, and she is in excellent company with the performances by other key actors. While the direction isn’t so exciting or imaginative, the actors really steal the show.

First published in the Canberra Times on 14 June 2024.  Jane’s reviews are also published by Rotten Tomatoes