Sometimes the best reason to watch a movie is because Isabelle Huppert is in it. That’s pretty much true of “La Syndicaliste,” a tangled if certainly watchable French true-crime drama about dirty political doings in the nation’s nuclear energy industry. Filled with men and women with furrowed brows, running and declaiming and sometimes explosively blowing their tops, the movie yearns to be a 1970s-style American thriller but is basically just a vehicle for Huppert’s talents. Even when it’s unclear what her character — a labor representative — is up to, she commands your attention with feverish focus and urgency.
Huppert plays Maureen Kearney, a leading union representative of Areva, a state-controlled French nuclear technology company. A no-nonsense, hard-charging official, Maureen takes her mandate seriously — Areva has more than 50,000 employees when the story opens in 2012 — and her resentful male colleagues somewhat less seriously, at least outwardly. She’s brassy and a bit flashy (she likes perilously high heels and slashes of red lipstick) and close to her boss at Areva, Anne Lauvergeon (Marina Foïs), a smooth number who’s about to lose her job because, as she explains, President Nicolas Sarkozy wants to replace her before the next election.
It isn’t obvious why Sarkozy thinks that firing Anne will help him; she suggests it’s because she’s a woman, stoking the gender war that percolates throughout this movie. Whatever the case, Sarkozy fires Anne, eventually losing the presidency to François Hollande, all of which adds real-world context to the story without illuminating it. The director Jean-Paul Salomé gives the movie a lively pace, but he crowds it with filler scenes, too many characters and political arcana. He also throws in an allusion to Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” — cue the blond chignon — that does his movie no favors. (Salomé wrote the script with Fadette Drouard.)
“La Syndicaliste” follows Anne as she tries to work with her new boss, Luc Oursel (an amusingly villainous Yvan Attal), a patronizing sexist who cozies up to Maureen even as he busily conspires against her. The extent of his schemes begin to emerge after a whistle-blower sneaks Anne a document showing that a shadowy figure who heads up another state-controlled utility, E.D.F., is clandestinely negotiating with a Chinese consortium to build low-cost plants. (Got it?) The idea is to turn E.D.F. into a world nuclear power and ruin Areva, which Maureen helpfully explains, “will be awful for our employees.”
The scheme proves worse for Maureen, who tries to bring attention to the E.D.F. plan, only to be largely met with indifference. As she continues rattling cages, she is met with escalating hostility, and then one grim morning while she’s home preparing for a big government meeting, an intruder puts a mask over her head and rapes her. Much of the rest of the movie involves Maureen navigating the aftermath of the assault as she submits to invasive medical examinations and police interviews that grow progressively antagonistic. The cops are stumped — there are no fingerprints, witnesses or surveillance visuals — and then they accuse Maureen of inventing the rape as a way to gin up sympathy for her political struggles.
Based on a 2019 book of the same title by Caroline Michel-Aguirre, “La Syndicaliste” never satisfyingly meshes the story’s corporate-political thriller elements with Maureen’s traumatic ordeal. Salomé’s handling of the rape doesn’t help. The movie opens right after a maid finds the bound Maureen in the basement of her home, and then the story flashes back several months at which point it begins to unwind chronologically. That’s fine, even if the structure is drearily familiar, but it ends up turning the rape into a narrative high point, which is just gross. Huppert, who makes her character’s pain and rage visceral, is enough.
Not rated. In French and Hungarian, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 1 minute. In theaters.