Love in a radioactive time, Rebecca Zlotowski’s Grand Central is a stylish romance, of modern baroque and packed with symbolism.
Atomic by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It might start on a train, but there’s no grand station to welcome Gary as he embarks on a new life, just a platform somewhere in the south of France where there are jobs on offer at the nearby nuclear power plant. And yet it is the end of the line for Gary who, after abandoning his previous girlfriend without so much as a goodbye, finds true love for the first time. With Tahar Rahim in one of his best performances since A Prophet and Lea Seydoux, who seems to be cornering the market in smouldering trailer trash, but who brings a delicious star quality to her blue collar role, Rebecca Zlotowski’s Grand Central is a very handsome story of a simmering romance that boils over into a nuclear explosion.
Gary (Tahar Rahim) is heading south by train. He’s pickpocketed by Tcherno (Johan Libéreau), but with barely a Euro-cent to his name, the two end up becoming friends, as they (along with Tcherno’s night-time lover Isaac) apply for work at the local nuclear reactor. In a bar one night, after a wager won on the back of a bucking bronco, Gary meets Gilles (Olivier Gourmet) and Toni (Denis Ménochet), foremen at the plant and well paid enough to shout the bar a round of drinks. Soon after, Gary meets Toni’s fiancée Karole (Léa Seydoux) as she explains with a kiss what a dose of radioactivity feels like. The guys get the job and move into a caravan next to Gilles, Toni and Karole and with their first pay packet buy a second-hand sports car. But when Karole and Gary end up beside each other on the back seat, there’s an electric connection between them that neither one of them can deny.
Unlike Mike Nichols’ moving account of US whistleblower Karen Silkwood, Rebecca Zlotowski’s Grand Central doesn’t care so much about the polemics of the nuclear industry, such as workers conditions or the horrific health effects of radiation poisoning. Admittedly, there are a few side swipes at undertrained casual staff and management cutting corners to meet their deadlines (both of which come across as unexpectedly implausible), and there’s a kind of body horror at the disease potentially inside, as Gary scrubs, scratches and scrapes himself clean, but for the most part the threat of radioactivity remains an abstract concept – movingly captured in the humiliating hosing down of Gilles or the hair shaving Géraldine is subjected to – the devastating long-term effects of a workplace accident frustratingly undisclosed.
Instead, the nuclear reactor in Grand Central functions as a metaphor for the ‘great love’ that finally pulls into the platform of Gary’s heart. Equipped with a dosimeter to monitor the scale of radiation, placed over one’s heart and which beeps furiously when the ‘dose’ becomes too strong, the metaphor is made explicit when Gary sees Karole in the plant’s laundry, already in love and unable to prevent himself from glancing down at his meter. It’s only the second time they’ve met after Karole burst into Gary’s life – explaining what a ‘dose’ feels like, scared, excited, weak at the knees and trembling. Like a stolen kiss. Or love. Grand Central even climaxes with the nuclear reactor going into meltdown, the siren sounding seven times, as Karole (still in her wedding dress) runs after Gary to finally confess her love.
It’s an explosion, but a curiously out of place culmination to an illicit love affair which has been lived out in ‘la grande nature’ – in the wild grass of a riverbank, floating downstream, walking through cornfields or under tree boughs. Zlotowski also aims, with a symbolic bottle of water, at a kind of worker solidarity – guys looking out for each other, who trust and care for each other, but which in the end crumbles under the guilt of a radioactive accident and the selfish egotism of an adulterous love. It’s a theme that in the end goes nowhere – neither leading to Gary’s growth nor that of small-time thief Tcherno, instead simply serving to underscore Gary’s betrayal of his sex. Nevertheless, with beautiful, oneiric cinematography, such as the stylised wedding banquet or the sequence in which Karole and Gary walk past each other in slow motion, symmetrical as they search for each other but their gaze unreturned, there’s a baroque quality to Zlotowski’s story – an operatic hyperbole as Gary turns up on Karole’s wedding night to take her away from it all, or hyper-stylised as the apple her husband gifts her on her wedding day floats away downstream. It’s perhaps overblown in its symbolism, but as a Romantic love story, Grand Central is an abundant feast for the senses.
Grand Central is released on 18th July 2014 in the UK