The Sitting Duck (2023)

Directed by Jean-Paul Salomé

The true story of Maureen Kearney, the head union representative of a French multinational nuclear powerhouse. She became a whistleblower, denouncing top-secret deals that shook the French nuclear sector. Alone against the world, she fought government ministers and industry leaders, tooth and nail to bring the scandal to light and to defend more than 50,000 jobs.. Her life was turned upside down when she was violently assaulted in her own home... The investigation is carried out under pressure: the subject is sensitive. Suddenly, new elements create doubt in the minds of the investigators. At first a victim, Maureen becomes a suspect.

The most obvious flaw of this (slightly overlong) film is that, regardless of whether real-life Mdme Kearney made a false accusation of rape or not, her 'true story' is clearly far messier—and therefore much more interesting—than portrayed here. Although it should in no way affect our judgement of her, La Syndicaliste skirted over a significant number of curious details (suicide attempts, etc.) in a way that felt quite disingenuous, subtly undermining the film's effort or at least making me ask why we aren't allowed to see the 'real' Mdme Kearney and must make do with a smooth statue instead. In that sense, the opportunity to de-personalise political activism was pointlessly squandered by the hagiographic impulse of the filmmakers: for reasons that should be obvious to everyone, we should not require that union activists be nuns in their private lives and saints in their public ones. It is true that elevating particular activists into the public consciousness will have a motivating effect, especially when they hail from minority backgrounds. But the whole process quickly reaches severe diminishing returns, and must be carefully watched lest that 'activism' becomes yet another subgenre of celebrity.

Regrettably, then, in place of telling a story akin to A Private War (2018) that chronicled the rather messy life of photojournalist Marie Colvin, La Syndicaliste seems instead pruriently interested with staging and restaging Mdme Kearney's sexual assualt, not only in the most obvious literal sense, but by repeatedly returning to specific details in the courtroom as well staging (multiple) humiliating medical examinations, all seemingly in the name of verité and 'telling her truth'. Let's hope director Jean-Paul Salomé's intentions were simply misplaced here because the alternative is a more than a little unsavoury.

Politically speaking, the film's ostensible motivation is the secret sell-off of nuclear technology to China by a large French energy corporation. Putting aside the sinophobia that infused any mention of le chinois, it was curious to consider how little of this plotline would really resonate in the United Kingdom, let alone the United States. After decades of formally nationalised industries being sold off to others, although a British audience may be able to commiserate with the French, it's hard to think of any Brit being able to sympathise with them… let alone anyone seriously believe that revealing the truth in the press will change anything whatsoever.

But just as this all this is made unnecessarily complicated with all manner of acronyms (and the names of various French ministries never to be referenced again), none of the characters achieve complexity, for everyone conforms to preexisting stereotype. Whistleblowers are selfless activists; male police officers are institutionalised sadists who disbelieve all women; female police officers conversely believe all women (and are secretly undermining their male colleagues); loyal husbands are entirely self-sacrificing; journalists are noble truth-seekers; and CEOs besuited sociopaths. You can start to see the end of the film a mile off, complete with its "I will appeal the verdict!" pseudo-twist.

It’s not unusual, unfortunately, for the victims of sexual attacks to find themselves distrusted and even accused. What rankles in the film’s approach is that the audience is also encouraged to question her story, with director Jean-Paul Salomé seeding the picture with doubts about the veracity of Maureen’s initial version of the events, even as it shows her vindicated in the end. It feels crass and manipulative to cast aspersions on the tale of a real-life rape victim in service of a narrative twist in a movie.

Wendy Ide (The Guardian)