The Sitting Duck’ Review: As a Victim Fighting to Be Believed, Isabelle Huppert Anchors a Muted, Fact-Based Procedural

The Sitting Duck’ Review: As a Victim Fighting to Be Believed, Isabelle Huppert Anchors a Muted, Fact-Based Procedural

 

As a female union rep in the oppressively male-dominated French nuclear industry, Maureen Kearney — the real-life heroine of Jean-Paul Salomé’s “The Sitting Duck” — is accustomed to keeping a cool head in a crisis. That doesn’t stop her male superiors from accusing her of the opposite, with then-President Nicolas Sarkozy allegedly branding her a “hysteric in a skirt”: In this men’s club, a woman’s mere presence is deemed her weakness. Yet when Kearney is raped and mutilated by unknown assailants, seemingly as a professional warning, it’s her lack of hysteria under the circumstances that is declared suspicious by men in power. As she’s first disbelieved, then charged without outright fabrication, Salomé’s film pivots from itchy whistleblower thriller to irate courtroom drama, with institutional misogyny as its binding thread.

The Sitting Duck’ Review
The Sitting Duck’ Review

The Sitting Duck’ Review Update 

A rape survivor criticized for her composure: sounds like an assignment for Isabelle Huppert, the star who essayed a comparable arc in Paul Verhoeven’s incendiary “Elle,” a highly dissimilar film that also probed society’s narrow expectations of female victimhood, and distrust of women who deviate from the norm. As the Irish-French immigrant Kearney — here rendered fully Gallic for dramatic purposes, albeit with a now-unlikely name — the reliably thorny Huppert gives “The Sitting Duck” some much-needed crinkles of psychological difficulty and danger. Outside her performance, however, Salomé’s film unfolds as a strictly businesslike procedural: perfectly diverting, but with all the cinematic scope and style of a Continental “Law & Order” spinoff.

In 2012, Kearney was discovered in her basement by her cleaner, gagged and bound to a chair, the letter ‘A’ carved into her stomach with a knife left, handle first, in her vagina. Salomé shows the attack in discreet shards, glitchily enough to preserve the mystery of the culprit, yet directly enough to ground the viewer in the victim’s truth. Our first extended look at Kearney comes in the immediate aftermath of the incident, following a gruelling medical examination: In the bathroom mirror, she fixes her blonde hairdo and applies severe, sirloin-red lipstick, ready to do battle again on the board of French nuclear multinational Areva. The workers she represents, she insists, can’t afford for her to show any weakness, much less to take any time off: “Call me if there’s a horse head in our bed,” she briskly tells her fretful husband Gilles (a fine Grégory Gadebois).

 

From here, “The Sitting Duck” swivels backwards, raking through the corporate skulduggery and snooping that could have made Kearney such violent enemies. Viewers unfamiliar with this period of French politics might feel a tad over-burdened with information: Names and alleged misdeeds pile up, though a critical conflict emerges when Areva’s sympathetic female CEO Anne Lauvergeon (Marina Foïs), a key ally of Kearney’s, is dismissed in favor of shady, misogynistic power-player Luc Oursel (Yvan Attal). Kearney learns that underhanded deals with China are afoot, with many of her workers’ jobs on the line. She blows the whistle; things deteriorate from there.

 

Yet just as we get to grips with this intrigue, Salomé and co-writer Fadette Drouard (adapting a nonfiction volume by Caroline Michel-Aguirre) pivot again, zeroing in on Kearney’s ordeal and the infuriating investigation thereof. The police don’t buy her story — as the chief investigating officer, Pierre Deladonchamps is largely called upon to represent stony patriarchal implacability — and Kearney is ultimately convicted of faking her own assault. The struggle to clear her name is a long one, portrayed by “The Sitting Duck” in largely journalistic, event-based terms: The laborious, dehumanizing formalities of the justice system are duly felt as the film approaches the two-hour mark.

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