Rebecca Zlotowski’s second feature, Grand Central, has had very frequent appearances on the festival circuit since its premiere last year in Cannes and has graced this year’s Diagonale Film Festival audience with its presence in the Austrian city of Graz.
The backdrop of the story is very original yet rather unusual, to say the least: set in a nuclear plant and its surroundings somewhere in France, the premise follows Gary, an unskilled and undereducated blue-collar worker who, apart from looking for quick yet decent cash, finds himself entangled in a radioactive love triangle with Karole and her brooding fiancé Toni while working on a maintenance job in very close vicinity to the nuclear reactor. But, Gary also becomes part of a new and different family, that of his fellow workers: Gilles, Toni, Karole and Géraldine.
The plot may come across as somewhat too standardized and unchanging – and even predictable – especially as it is examines the routine and everyday specifics. The leading characters lack depth and even personality while the script is clumsy and bears certain incoherencies, feeble and underdeveloped arcs and twists like for instance that of Karole’s pregnancy. The premise of a love story burgeoning in a realistic yet potentially lethal setting is perhaps clichéd and old but keeps the first half of the film running smoothly despite unharmonious tonal shifts. The second half falls flat and ends ambivalently with a lack of narrative conviction and consistency. Nevertheless, Grand Central never falls in the soap opera genre although it could very easily: Géraldine gets exposed and shaves her head; Gary risks getting exposed to help Toni; Karole gets pregnant and has to choose between her fiancé and her lover, and many secrets are exposed and jealousy surfaces. And yet, the love story comes across as cold, too restrained, the chemistry between the actors not always being palpable and not boiling enough to justify the story’s argument. In that sense, Grand Central is void, tedious and nauseating. We are left to suffocate together with the protagonists that we unintentionally end up caring for.
The plant becomes a living and breathing, threatening character and the film is based on the looming presentiment that either the plant or the people in it will soon explode. We can see that Zlotowski feels compassion and admiration for the people working in this forsaken world and creates an authentic glimpse into this surreptitious and unfamiliar societal “caste”.
Grand Central opens in a very lively fashion, with a throbbing score that liberates young and dynamic energy. With cinematographer Georges Lechaptois, Zlotowski manages to create a series of stunning visual contrasts, almost clinical for the plant and poetic for other sceneries. The harsh electronic music score enhances the mood of the gradually increasing unease. But the performances are good. Rahim as the sympathetic Gary is precise and excellent while Gourmet shows great skills at face acting, embodying a man damaged by disappointment. Seydoux, who starred in Zlotowski’s first feature, Belle Épine, is splendid as the object of desire, a young woman who looks for an escape, a new motivational force in her life.
Grand Central is essentially a subtle social critique, a depiction of the traps of under-education with the moral of the story being that love can (unexpectedly) bloom in the most toxic of milieus. But this is, unfortunately, not enough.
Production: Les Films Velvet, France 3 Cinéma, Rhône-Alpes Cinéma, KGP Kranzelbinder Gabriele Production, France Télévisions, Canal +, Ciné+, Soficinéma 9, Région Rhône-Alpes, Région Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, Land Niederösterreich, Centre National de la Cinématographie (France/Austria 2013). Producer: Frédéric Jouve. Co-producer: Gabriele Kranzelbinder. Associate producers: Marie Lecoq and Frédéric Niedermayer. Director: Rebecca Zlotowski. Screenplay: Rebecca Zlotowski, Gaëlle Macé and Ulysse Korolitski. Photography: Georges Lechaptois. Music: Robin Coudert. Production Design: Antoine Platteau. Costume design: Chattoune. Editing: Julien Lacheray.
Cast: Tahar Rahim (Gary Manda), Léa Seydoux (Karole), Olivier Gourmet (Gilles), Denis Ménochet (Toni), Johan Libéreau (Tcherno), Nozha Khouadra (Maria), Nahuel Pérez Biscaryart (Isaac), Camille Lellouche (Géraldine), Guillaume Verdier (Bertrand), Marie Berto (Morali), Margot Faure (Gary’s Sister)
Color – 94 min. Premiere: 18-V-2013 (Cannes Film Festival)
This film was reviewed at the 2014 Diagonale Film Festival.