Film Reviews

The Sitting Duck

Published June 21, 2024
Isabelle Huppert takes on the dark forces of the French government

As we’ve recently seen with Iranian director, Mohammad Rasoulof having to flee his native land to avoid imprisonment and a flogging, the cinema still has the capacity to send tremors down the corridors of power. Although films on social justice issues are not much appreciated in authoritarian states, those same regimes recognise the immense propaganda value of the medium when it comes to spreading their own messages. For better or worse, film remains the popular artform of our age.

This should make us all the more appreciative of those liberal democracies that allow filmmakers to tell stories that cast dark shadows over the upper echelons of political and corporate life.

There is a whole genre of films devoted to whistleblowers, to those who interfere with powerful vested interests and pay a fearful price. It can only be a matter of time until someone makes a film about David McBride, sentenced to more than five years in prison for revealing abuses within the Australian Defence Forces. The irony has not been lost on anyone, that so far the whistleblower is the only person to have been prosecuted.

The most distinguished whistleblower and activist films include Mike Nichols’s Silkwood(1983), Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich (2000), and Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters(2019). Jean-Paul Salomé’s The Sitting Duck – an expressive translation of a French film called La Syndicaliste (“the unionist”) – shows that such stories are not confined to the United States.

The movie tells the real-life story of Maureen Kearney (Isabelle Huppert), an Irish-born union representative employed by the French nuclear power company, Areva. A woman with a reputation for upholding workers’ rights, in 2012 Kearney was contacted by an informant who told her about a secret deal to share French nuclear technology with a Chinese corporation, which would cost thousands of local jobs. She immediately began lobbying politicians and bringing the issue to public attention.

This was an embarrassment for her new boss, Luc Oursel (Yan Attal), who had been promoted by Nicolas Sarkozy’s government in place of previous director, Anne Laubergeon (Marina Foïs), with whom Kearney had enjoyed a close professional relationship. It soon became apparent that Oursel was working to facilitate the Chinese deal in collaboration with the head of the massive, government-owned electricity company, EDF.

When Sarkozy was turfed out, to be replaced as President by Socialist, François Hollande, Kearney went to work on the new government and its ministers. Should one be surprised that the Socialists were just as ready to support the secret deal as their conservative predecessors? In Australia we’ve seen how incoming Labor governments blithely perpetuate the most controversial policies of the Coalition. In NSW one glaring example is the Minns government’s complete betrayal of the Powerhouse Museum, which as an election policy they had sworn to protect. Other examples could be multiplied, but these are stories for another occasion.

It soon became apparent to Kearney that her efforts were not appreciated by those in high places, as she became subject to pressures at work and small, threatening incidents in daily life. Then on 17 December 2012, the day she was due for a private meeting with the President, Kearney was found by a cleaner in the basement of her home. She had been blindfolded and tied to a chair. The letter ‘A’ had been carved onto her stomach with a knife which was subsequently lodged, handle-first in her vagina.

One might assume that such a brutal assault would only underline the urgency of Kearney’s campaign, but this is where the story becomes truly nightmarish. As the investigation proceeds, it appears as if the police are more concerned with searching Kearney’s home and office, putting her through a series of humiliating medical examinations, questioning her motivations and even her sanity. The implication is that she somehow staged the crime herself to draw attention to her campaign. In no time at all, the victim has become the suspect, with such intense pressure she begins to feel the only solution is to falsely confess her complicity to end the persecution of herself and her family.

I won’t elaborate any further, but it’s chilling to realise this Kafkaesque scenario describes events that took place only ten years ago in France, with reverberations that continue into the present. It underlines the dangerous synergies that exist between financial and political power when governments make deals with corporations in their mutual interest, with no concern as to whether this benefits the average citizen. More precisely, it shows how governments increasingly act like big corporations, crafting decisions and policies under a veil of secrecy, putting capital before community. Anyone who interferes with these clandestine processes is to be eliminated, by fair means or foul.

It sounds like classic material for conspiracy theorists, but Kearney’s case speaks for itself. She can face down the casual misogyny of the workplace, but the public ordeal she endures is far more sinister. It’s impossible to identify those involved in her assault and persecution, but somebody necessarily gave orders. We don’t know if those orders came from corrupt politicians, empire-building bureaucrats, or rogue elements with an interest in the game. It’s one person against a huge, faceless enemy that holds all the aces, right down to the manipulation of the justice system.

The corrosion of public trust engendered by such episodes leads inevitably to a backlash among voters, who turn to right-wing demagogues offering a new broom – at best, a potent, dangerous fantasy, at worst a collapse of democracy itself.

One of the most impressive features of The Sitting Duck is the performance of Isabelle Huppert in the lead role. It wasn’t so long ago she was playing a tough-minded rape victim in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (2016), and here she is again, weathering another sexual assault, refusing to fall to pieces. As an actress Huppert is known for her portrayals of cold, scheming bitches, but her great skill lies in being able to convey a full palette of emotions while maintaining a mask of impassivity. This is perfect for Maureen Kearney, a recovered alcoholic, described by her former boss as a tough, uncompromising official, but also strangely vulnerable.

Whatever the flaws in her character or the skeletons in her closet, in this story, Kearney never removes her armour. At the age of 71, with more than 150 films to her credit, it’s hard to think of many occasions when Huppert has shown us her vulnerable side or failed to emerge on top. She has found a role tailor-made for an actor with a unique ability to tell us everything we need to know, while giving nothing away.



The Sitting Duck

Directed by Jean-Paul Salomé

Written by Fadette Drouard & Jean-Paul Salomé, after a book by Caroline Michel-Aguirre

Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Grégory Gadebois, Yvan Attal, Marina Foïs, François-Xavier Demaison, Maria Taquin, Aloïse Sauvage, Alexandra Maria Lara, Pierre Deladonchamps, Gilles Cohen

France/Germany, M, 121 mins


Published in the Australian Financial Review, 22 June, 2024