With an attention to detail that is almost documentarian in its realist precision, Rebecca Zlotowski’s Grand Central boasts electric performances from its joint leads, Tahar Rahim and Léa Seydoux, with a pulsating rhythm that drives it towards a climactic final act.
With little to no qualifications to speak of, a murky past life, and a family that has come to reject him, Gary (Rahim) applies for a position at the eponymous nuclear power plant, Grand Central, willing to trade the dangers that come with the job for the money it pays.
Befriending another couple of new-starters, Tcherno (Johan Libéreau) and Isaac (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), Gary picks up a job in ‘outage’, work that involves maintaining and fixing the active plant and taking doses of radiation in the process. For the workers, it’s unduly up to them to keep track of their own radiation levels, and to make sure they keep those levels down, or else face getting kicked off for the rest of the season, or worse.
Taken under the wing of veterans Gilles (Olivier Gourmet) and Toni (Denis Ménochet), Gary and co. are quickly trained up for the job, taking doses of radiation from day one. It is in this world that Gary meets Karole (Seydoux), Toni’s fiancée and a fellow worker at the plant, with whom he quickly spirals into lust and from there into love. Moonlit trysts become stolen moments of heartfelt intensity, escaping from the clinical life of the plant to the beautiful countryside surrounding it, and the juxtaposition is not lost on the audience.
At the film’s core is a basic love-triangle of forbidden love and passions, let loose for a time before they are discovered. But it also rises above that basic premise, told by so many films before it, aspiring to and achieving something more. Rahim and Seydoux’s performances are truly remarkable, and it’s a real pleasure to watch their passions and emotions unfold as the film progresses. Rahim is perfectly cast as Gary, desperate for work, and then desperate to keep it if it means he can stay close to Karole, even if it puts his own life in jeopardy. And Seydoux is fantastic opposite him, bringing Karole’s own motivations and secrets to life with a scintillating and effervescent drive, with danger ever-simmering on all fronts just under the surface.
Co-writing the script with past collaborator Gaëlle Macé, Zlotowski’s romantic drama moves in a handful of unexpected directions as it shifts beyond the archetypal triangular romance, with a complexity and depth crafted at each of its three points, as well as in the various other characters surrounding them. The attention to detail that Zlotowski pays to these workers and their work is impressive, shooting in an actual decommissioned plant in Austria, going to great lengths to give the plant scenes a feeling of realism to them. The connection between the plant and the radioactive relationship between Gary and Karole is of course apparent, yet it doesn’t feel played out or even remotely clichéd. So powerful are Rahim and Seydoux’s performances, in particular, that we cannot help but be drawn to these two characters and the electricity of their chemistry.
Grand Central has that rare appeal of pulling us into a world hardly seen in real life, and even less on screen. It holds our attention throughout, putting these characters’ desires onto ourselves. We want what they want, whether it’s just to be able to eke out a life for oneself, or to fall in love; and it makes for one of the most beautiful, powerful, and affecting films you’ll see this year.