A Second Look at ‘Grand Central’

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Brian Ó Tiomáin takes a second look at Grand Central.

Grand Central is a film from rising young French Director Rebecca Zlotowski. Zlotowski co-wrote the script with Gaelle Macé, a screenwriter with whom she collaborated previously on Belle Epine.  The film follows an illicit love affair within a community of lower paid workers in a nuclear reactor plant in France.

 

From early on in the film, we see in the distant background, the giant Nuclear reactor chimneys. Those scenes had resonance for me. Some years ago, I drove through France from Normandy along the Loire valley down to the Swiss Border.

 

I was amazed at the number of nuclear reactor plants that I passed en route. I had a queasy feeling every time I passed one of these smoking giants and always felt the better for looking at them through the rear view mirror as distinct from the windscreen.

 

I got the same queasy feeling watching Grand Central as we moved progressively closer and eventually into the heart of the Nuclear Reactor.

 

Tahir Reymour is impressive in the lead role of Gary, a young man with very little money or prospects. Gary is prepared to take risks to improve his situation and seeks a job as a decontamination sub-contractor at a nuclear power plant in the lower valley of the Rhone.

 

Recruited by supervisor Gilles and veteran Toni, Gary discovers that the risk of radiation contamination is much higher than he was led to believe. Gary continues to take risks when he begins a torrid affair with Karole, Toni’s fiancée. This is maybe not the wisest of choices, given that Toni is directly responsible for Gary’s safety within the plant.

 

The film makes impressive use of sound design to enhance the pervasive sense of of claustrophobia within the plant. There is a tension whenever the action moves inside the reactor, where any lapse in concentration can have serious consequences for all present. We learn a lot about the health and safety aspect of the nuclear power plant system while within those walls. While it was instructive and engaging, I will not be visiting one of those sites to develop my knowledge further.

 

The sense of claustrophobia within the plant extends into the cramped living conditions of this little community of lower-paid workers who live together and socialise together. The use of handheld cameras and close-ups add to the growing sense of volatility within the reactor and within the social dynamic of this tight knit group.

 

Karole is played by Lea Seydoux, who worked previously with the director on Belle Epine.  Both won awards on their first collaboration. Seydoux has a commanding screen presence and will be remembered from Blue is the Warmest Colour and the Grand Budapest Hotel.

 

As the film moves towards a climax, one has a sense that things may not end well for Gary and Karole. And while not wishing to reveal too much of the plot, there were developments in the final third of the film which surprised me.

 

Grand Central is gritty and felt distinctly French in style. It won the Francois Chalais prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. The narrative manages to combine a love story with issues of social and environmental concern without appearing to be preachy.

 

While I might have reservations about some aspects of the resolution, Grand Central is very well served by its cast, by the photography and by its use of sound. That is impressive for such a young director. I look forward to seeing more of Rebecca Zlotowski’s work in the future and  I expect we will see further collaborations with Lea Seydoux.

 

 

 

 

 

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Grand Central

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DIR: Rebecca Zlotowski • WRI: Gaëlle Macé, Rebecca Zlotowski • PRO:Frederic Jouve •  DOP George Lechaptois • ED: Julien Lacheray • DES: Antoine Platteau • CAST:Tahar Rahim, Léa Seydoux, Olivier Gourmet

For some reason I always go into French films with high expectations, I don’t know if this is due to the fact that I’ve enjoyed most of the French films I’ve seen, or whether I’ve been programmed to view European cinema as somewhat more sophisticated and nuanced than your typical Hollywood fair. Either way I entered the screening of Grand Central with high expectations, with my hand at the ready to give myself a cultural pat on the back for enjoying the film, and enjoy the film I did.

Grand Central is the second feature film from the French writer director Rebecca Zlotowski, and the film follows Gary, a young man with an implied dark past who takes up a job at a nuclear power plant in Rhone, where it becomes evident that danger lurks at almost every turn. Gary was told by an employment officer at the start of the film that this was the only viable opportunity for him to gain employment.

He joins a crew there, who seem to have built up a very close bond, as they put their safety in each other’s hands on a daily basis. Living in a trailer park with his supervisor Giles and veteran Toni, he soon starts up a love affair with Toni’s fiancée Carole. This relationship leads Gary to put his life in danger by continuing to work at the plant despite the fact that he has tested positive for high radiation levels, meaning he is knowingly  putting his health at risk to continue the affair.

Despite being a French language film a lot of the actors will be familiar to mainstream moviegoers.  Toni is played by Denis Menochet, who many of you will recognise as the farmer from the mesmerising opening scene of Inglorious Bastards, while Lea Seydoux, who plays Carole, is an-up-and-coming star of international cinema with film credits like Robin Hood,  and Mission Impossible 4 already under her belt.

There are many things to like about the film, but there’s no doubt that Seydoux’s performance is what stands out the most. She perfectly captures a confused young woman, who loves two different men in two completely different ways, so much so that we never judge her for her infidelity, as we realise there is no clear cut resolution. I have no doubt that her deep, sad eyes will continue to be forceful cinematic weapons for years to come.

Other aspects of the film that stand out, are some beautifully shot scenes that capture Karole and Gary’s  romance blossoming in the fields and woods surrounding the trailer park, representing the naturalness of their relationship in contrast to her relationship with Toni, who is considerably older than her.

Unfortunately the script is clunky, and some of the dialogue and sequences tend to stretch the boundaries of belief, particularly in regard to the relationship between Karole and Toni. I also feel that the film misses a big opportunity to make more of the tension that arises from the dangerous working conditions in the Nuclear plant.

Despite these flaws, all in all the film is well worth watching, particularly if you, like me, love to like French Cinema.

Michael Rice

94 mins

Grand Central is released on 18th July 2014

 

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