Director Rebecca Zlotowski scored big in 2010 when her debut feature “Belle Epine” (aka “Dear Prudence”) won the Prix Louis Delluc for best first film, and snagged star Léa Seydoux a nomination for Most Promising Actress at the Césars. Three years on and Seydoux has certainly made good on that promise, with her profile rising ever higher -- in this year’s Cannes she’s one of a select number of actors to have two films in the Official Selection, one of them being her reteaming with Zlotowski on “Grand Central” with Kechiche’s ”Blue is the Warmest Color” in competition being the other. Neatly enough, her “Grand Central” co-star Tahar Rahim also has two Official Selection films, due to his turn in Asghar Farhadi’s competition entry “The Past” (reviewed here). They seem like a strangely perfect pairing, purely in terms of profile and career stage, then, and there is a simple chemistry to their interaction in Zlotowski’s sophomore film that makes a quiet kind of sense. For her part, Zlotowski has turned in a beguiling film that impresses as much for its oddly specific and well-researched setting (the ragtag community of lower-grade workers at a nuclear power plant), as for the romance, and maintains impressive narrative and tonal control right up until an ending that falters just at the final hurdle.
Gary (Rahim) befriends Tcherno (Johan Libéreau) when the latter tries to pick his pocket on a train. They are both headed to a processing station where unemployed and more or less unskilled labourers are being recruited for the bottom-rung jobs in France's nuclear power industry. After a brief training period that has them learn about dosages and safety practices for being around intensely toxic radiation, which their team leader Gilles (Olivier Gourmet) likens to being at war with an invisible enemy, they are put to work on the grunt duties of maintenance and repair that nuclear power plants require. But they also quickly become part of the local community of power plant workers, who live in the temporary porta-cabin accommodations provided, and bond rapidly due to the trusting-each-other-with-their-lives thing that goes on every day. One of the central figures in this little realm is Toni (Denis Ménochet, whom you may recognise from Ozon’s recent “In the House” as well as "Inglourious Basterds"), who lives with his fiancee Karole (Lea Seydoux), who also works at the plant. Toni takes Gary under his wing a little, and Gary discovers a kind of family environment, but the attraction between him and Karole is immediate and mutual, and threatens the stability of the group, even as mistakes start to happen at the plant.
What’s maybe more impressive than the bones of the story though, are the thoughtful, confident flourishes Zlotowski brings to the film, both on the script level and at the shooting stage. Occasionally we drift into slow motion, making a point of a particular moment or mood, while elsewhere the lush island where Karole and Gary have their trysts, and the warmth of the group’s nighttime outdoor dinner gatherings is contrasted with the immense artificiality and ugliness of the chimneys, metal walkways, plastic protective suits and radiation monitors, that make up the prosaic, practical and unromantic backdrop of a working nuclear power plant. In fact, while the performances are strong from leads and supporting cast (especially Rahim, whose role is rather more substantially written than Seydoux’s), what really worked a spell on us was the way Zlotowski delivers what feels like an utterly authentic glimpse into the behind-scenes, below-stairs aspect of a secretive and unfamiliar industry, while never compromising the slightly dreamlike tone. To create a sense of poetry when you’re shooting the hard, worn edges of a staff dressing room, or a decontamination shower, is no mean feat, and both the director and cinematographer Georges Lechaptois deserve praise here.
Both a lot and very little happens -- Karole’s friend Geraldine gets exposed and has to shave her head, Gary risks his own exposure to help Toni, Karole gets pregnant and has to choose between her lover and her fiance, secrets are discovered and jealousies simmer -- but the film’s tonal control means it never feels like the soap opera it could be. In fact you can also read some subtle social critique into its choice of protagonist and milieu -- it’s in many ways a portrait of the kind of trap a young undereducated working class person can fall into. Forced to take a low-paying, dangerous job as a tiny cog in a massive, impersonal industry, which affords little protection for when things go wrong, Gary is an eminently sympathetic figure, whose longing for the kind of familial stability he briefly finds here is all the more potent for being unspoken, and maybe not even consciously acknowledged.
As we mentioned, the film does stumble in its very final moments, opting for an ambivalent ending that lacks the narrative confidence of what had come before. But it’s not the most important thing, and the overriding impression we come away with is much more of the film’s quiet intelligence and empathy up to that point. As critical as Zlotowski may be of the unfair ‘caste’ system on which the nuclear power system works, she has nothing but compassion, and maybe even admiration, for the people who find themselves on the receiving end. The real moral of the story is that no matter if you’re making your life in the shadow of enormous chimney stacks, with danger sirens sounding out regularly, love -- romantic or brotherly -- can blossom, and perhaps even thrive in the most toxic of environments. [B+]