Lea Seydoux and Tahar Rahim are two blue-collar workers at a nuclear power plant in France who fall in lust.
An illicit romance blooms in a powder-keg environment in Grand Central, French writer-director Rebecca Zlotowski’s second feature that has a great premise but is bogged down by a weaker second half and an unsure handle on the characters. Set among the exploited blue-collar workers at a nuclear power plant in France, the story certainly has an unusual setting, which Zlotowski depicts with an almost Loach-ian attention to unfussy, everyday detail. But the torrid love affair that develops against this largely realistic backdrop between two good-looking colleagues (played by blonde bombshell Lea Seydoux and A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim) is too bombastic and clichéd for the film to ever become a single whole.
Though the film’s generally well-acted and benefits from a few cuts of great music on the soundtrack — courtesy of techno-artist Rob, who also scored the director’s first film, Dear Prudence, which already starred Seydoux — Grand Central’s box office won’t be cooling-tower high beyond home turf, though Franco-friendly venues and festivals could opt for niche engagements.
The film opens with Tcherno (Johan Libereau, another Prudence alumnus) stealing the wallet of Gary (Rahim) on a train. The down-and-out youngsters both hope to be hired by a sub-contractor to do decontamination work at a nuclear power plant and before they’ve even arrived at their future workplace, Gary has stolen Tcherno’s wallet in revenge and the two lowlifes have become fast friends.
The lively opening, set to a pulsating score, imbues the early going with a young and reckless energy that mirrors the characters, who’ll risk being laid off if they’re exposed to too much radiation during the unavoidable small accidents that occur, thus putting either their health or their livelihood in the balance for a ridiculously low income.
Gary finds a bed in a nearby trailer park where several co-workers live, including the veteran Gilles (Dardenne regular Olivier Gourmet), who trains the rookies, and the hulking Toni (Denis Menochet), whose fiancée, Karole (Seydoux), is introduced to Gary at a bar where she spontaneously kisses him in an attempt to explain how radiation sickness feels. Immediately, Gary is bewitched by Karole, and soon the two are secretly meeting in the nearby bulrushes for extended bouts of moonlit lovemaking. And as if that sight wasn’t enough of a Hallmark-cliché, the suddenly syrupy score further underlines the point, moving the film far away from the realism of its power plant-set scenes and straight into Lifetime territory.
The basic conceit of the screenplay, co-written by regular collaborator Gaelle Mace, with an assist from Ulysse Korolitski, is to place a forbidden love affair within an environment that’s potentially lethal and this is what keeps the film’s first half afloat despite the jarring tonal shifts, with the more experienced Toni —who witnessed the pair’s first kiss and drunkenly cheered it on — and rookie Gary working together on missions in which the margin of error becomes ever smaller and the stakes grow higher.
But Zlotowski paints herself into a corner by not giving Gary and Karole enough depth and personality, so the film never becomes about people but only about their decisions (who will Karole choose if Gary and Toni don’t kill each other first?). The screenplay also seems unsure whether the story’s an ensemble piece or a love triangle, with some characters, including Tcherno and his best bud, Isaac (Argentinean thespian Nahuel Perez Biscayart), dropping in and out at random. Similarly, some ideas, such as the suggestion that Karole and Toni planned to use Gary for their own ends, suddenly surface and then disappear.
Thankfully, Seydoux, who perfectly embodies another white-trash character after last year’s Sister, and the talented Rahim are able to breathe some life into their stock characters, and their combined appeal helps paper over some of the problems.
The plebeian production and costume design at the trailer park neatly contrast with the cold and clinical interiors and ditto workwear at the power plant; not the same can be said of the heterogeneous score, which features both great and some terribly mediocre pieces.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 18, 2013
Production companies: Les Films Velvet, in association with France 3 Cinema, Rhone-Alpes Cinema, KGP Kranzelbinder Gabrielle Production
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Lea Seydoux, Olivier Gourmet, Denis Menochet Johan Libereau, Nozha Khuadra, Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Camille Lellouche
Director: Rebecca Zlotowski
Screenwriters: Rebecca Zlotowski, Gaelle Mace, with the assistance of Ulysse Korolitski Producer: Frederic Jouve
Co-producer: Gabriele Kranzelbinder
Director of photography: George Lechaptois
Production designer: Antoine Platteau
Costume designer: Chattoune, Sylvie Ong
Editor: Julien Lacheray
Sales: Elle Driver, Paris
No rating, 94 minutes.
Gary (Tahar Rahim) is a nomadic and unskilled labourer who swaps cherry-tomato picking for the more dangerous but lucrative business of reactor maintenance at a nuclear power plant.
Some way into this drama, Gary meets Karole (Léa Seydoux), the wife of a co-worker, who rubs up against him in order to trumpet an analogy between radiation and sex, a correspondence that will hang over Grand Central until the final credits roll.
Rebecca Zlotowski’s film, the recipient of the François Chalais Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, has all the trappings of a cool French arthouse movie. There are big, brash post-Godardian fonts, in red, bien sur. There’s some splendidly discombobulating sound design. There’s an achingly hip central pairing in Blue Is the Warmest Colour’s Seydoux and A Prophet’s Rahim. There are Geiger counters, which come second only to unexploded bombs for inherent drama.
For all that, Grand Central is curiously muted and disconnected. For a drama, it’s awfully short on, well, drama. Every time it threatens to become a contemporary Silkwood or a heterosexual Blue Is the Warmest Colour, it seems to pull back and maintain and careful distance. Gary drifts into the illicit affair just as he drifts into his potentially deadly occupation. There’s no sense of psychology or motivation here, and the love affair, by extension, generates very little by way of heat signature.
Still, Grand Central does score points for intrigue and atmosphere. The film’s white trash world of hip-hop, trailer parks, cheap clothes and cheaper wine is beautifully realised, and provides a welcome respite from the well-appointed Parisian apartments that define most French film exports.