(Rebecca Zlotowski, France/Austria, 2013) 94 minutes


Director: Rebecca Zlotowski
Producer: Frederic Jouve
Screenplay: Gaelle Mace,
  Rebecca Zlotowski
Cinematography: George Lechaptois
Editor: Julian Lacheray
Music: Robin Coudert
Tahar Rahim (Gary Manda)
Léa Seydoux (Karole)
Olivier Gourmet (Gilles)
Denis Menochet (Toni)
Johan Libereau (Tcherno)
Nozha Khouadra (Maria)
Nahuel Perez Biscayart (Isaac)

Reviews and notes

2013 Cannes, Rio de Janeiro, Vancouver, London, Warsaw, Thessaloniki, Stockholm, Taipei, Toronto
2014 Palm Springs, Glasgow, Hong Kong, Seattle

Fast-rising French star Lea Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Colour) reunites with Belle Épine director Rebecca Zlotowski for this intense love triangle played out in and around a nuclear power plant. Gary (Tahar Rahim, A Prophet and The Past) arrives at the plant looking to score some danger pay. He gets it, finding maintenance work close to the reactor itself – and inevitably exposing himself to low levels of radiation. (‘It’s like sunburn,’ he rationalizes.) But the real danger comes in the form of his attraction to Karole (Sedoux), who also works at the plant, alongside her fiancé Toni (Denis Menochet – who played Sedoux’s father, the farmer harbouring Jews under his floorboards in the memorable first scene of Inglourious Basterds). Shooting in a real, billion-dollar Austrian plant that was completed shortly before that country voted to ban nuclear power in a national referendum, Zlotowski is careful to ground her melodrama in the everyday operations of this clinical, antiseptic environment. She draws a stark contrast between this industrial space and the lush countryside that surrounds it, where the tight-knit workers can let their hair down and enjoy themselves – but she’s also alert to the wider complexities and ironies implicit in this set up, and especially the ramifications of Gary and Karole’s illicit love affair.
- Vancouver International Film Festival, 2013.

Like all films set around a nuclear power station, Grand Central contains an element of suspense, the soundtrack punctuated by plaintively sinister sirens. But Rebecca Zlotowski's accomplished second feature is no anti-nuclear energy tract, even as it points to its dangers; she is more interested in the melodrama that unfolds among seasonal workers at the station in a story that equates amorous passion and nuclear toxicity.

We are introduced to Gary Manda (Tahar Rahim) in a brilliantly edited scene on the train that takes him to the nuclear plant at Cruas in the Rhone valley, its massive towers looming in the background. Fare-dodging and a pickpocketing incident suggest a resourceful young man living on his wits. His job interview on arrival equally economically sketches both his social background (no qualifications, dead-end jobs) and the cynical exploitation by state-owned energy company EDF of people desperate enough to risk their health in order to earn a living. But Gary also finds camaraderie in the group of seasonal workers who live in a caravan camp by the river – a contrast with his own family, where, the film hints, relationships are fraught. The sense of the group of workers as a surrogate family is reinforced by its structure: two slightly older father figures dominate, Gilles (Olivier Gourmet), mentor to the group, and Toni (Denis Menochet), who lends Gary money, while Gary himself fools around with friends his age, especially Tcherno (Johan Libereau), the young pickpocket he meets on the train. Predictably, this volatile male world is upset when Gary falls in love with Karole (Lea Seydoux), Toni's fiancee, a feeling quickly reciprocated.

Karole's spectacular entrance into the story concentrates the main idea of Grand Central – that love and nuclear radiation are equally intoxicating (in both senses of the term) – while it underlines the script's weakness. As the group is drinking around a table in the local bar, Karole, in micro-shorts and clinging vest, suddenly gets up and heads for Gary. She kisses him lengthily on the mouth and delivers a mini-lecture on the heady and dangerous effects of her kiss being similar to those of la dose, the critical level of radiation that the workers must not reach. She then proceeds to sit on Toni's knee. Her speech charts the programme of the film.

The twin perils of love and work provide the backbone of the story, as the mounting tension created by Gary and Karole's increasingly overt liaison somewhat obviously parallels the rise in Gary's dose as he performs more and more dangerous tasks – their final reunion takes place against sirens sounding seven times, signifying maximum danger. To drive the point home, there is also a scene in which the only other woman in the group, Geraldine (Camille Lellouche), sings a 1950 ballad entitled Maladie d'amour, whose lyrics proclaim "love is death but love is also life". But while Karole's kiss makes for a pleasing spectacle – the film's young stars undoubtedly make a sexy couple – as a character she lacks coherence. After her brazen behaviour in the bar, she is portrayed as sexually driven but submissive, frequently silent and strangely passive. In Grand Central, the world of work is male, the women signify sex and emotion (in this respect Zlotowski's film confirms that a woman director provides no guarantee of a change in gender representations). Karole and Geraldine also work at the station, looking after clothing, but they are only glimpsed there and we learn nothing of their work, unlike that of the men. One poignant scene shows Geraldine in tears as her hair is shaved because of radiation after an alert; intentionally or not, the scene uneasily recalls the femmes tondues who were punished for sexual misconduct during the German occupation. By contrast, the alert for the men results simply in a more vigorous shower. Needless to say, Lea Seydoux's naked body is more explicitly on display than Tahar Rahim's.

Grand Central does not purport to be a documentary on a nuclear power station, but it does poetically evoke its menacing presence. The massive smoking towers on the bank of the Rhone, the hi-tech, cool, blue-grey interiors (shot in an Austrian station that never actually operated) have a brutal, dehumanised beauty that contrasts with the lush countryside of river, tall grass and leaves moving in the wind. Gary's first day at work compounds the effect by aligning our point of view with his perception as we hear his difficult breathing inside the heavy protective gear. The film also points out the lowly and precarious status of this group of workers who do the most dangerous work, as opposed to the better paid and better regarded EDF engineers — but only en passant Similarly, health hazards (such as infertility) are evoked but with a light touch. Gary, Gilles, Toni et al lead hard lives but the film focuses on their passions and desires rather than political awareness. The point is in fact their marginal status, powerfully visualised by their caravan camp, a marginality that among other things can be traced to Zlotowski's cinephilia, as befits a graduate of the FEMIS, the French state film school.

Grand Central fairly explicitly blends references to French and American cinema. The latter, beyond the film's title, is most obviously figured in a mechanical rodeo bull in the roadside cafe, and the director has described her film as a western, beginning with a stranger riding into town. More pervasive are references to French cinema. It is easy to link Gary Manda's name to Jacques Becker's 1950 Casque d'or, in which a young worker called Manda (Serge Reggiani) 'steals' a beautiful, sensual woman (Simone Signoret) from the boss of a gang of thieves. Equally obvious, among other things, are tributes to Jean Renoir, a director also known for his love of marginal characters. The name Toni evokes his eponymous 1934 melodrama set among workers in the south of France, but perhaps more omnipresent are echoes of Picnic on the Grass (1959), also shot in the midi, in which sterile male science is pitted against a fusion of nature and a woman's curvaceous body. Similarly, Grand Central features a running contrast between the cold, geometric and death driven world of the power station and warm nature associated with a woman's body, as Gary and Karole are virtually always seen making love in the fields.

Still, Grand Central is a film of today, not least through its uniformly excellent cast and especially its two glamorous stars. Since he emerged in Jacques Audiard's 2009 A Prophet, Rahim has continued his spectacular rise in a number of lead roles that do not necessarily trade on his North African origins (here only a mere suggestion). His trademark mixture of naturalness, intensity and raffish charm is electrifying and endows his character with tremendous authenticity. It is more difficult to say the same of Seydoux. While she has also appeared in some well-regarded parts, notably in Abdellatif Kechiche's 2013 Blue Is the Warmest Colour and Zlotowski's own Belle Epine(2010), her celebrity rests more squarely on her illustrious parentage, glamorous clothes and sexy looks, displayed in a stupefying number of magazine covers over the last two years or so, including, naked, for girlie magazine Lui. This dichotomy between the two stars logically finds its way into the film: while Rahim realistically finds his place within a group of male workers, Seydoux lacks credibility in this milieu and remains an attractive but distant fantasy creature, both for the men in the film and for the spectator.
- Ginette Vincendeau, Sight & Sound, August 2014.

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