Reviewed by Drew Ninnis
Director: Rebecca Zlotowski
Screenplay: Gaëlle Macé, Rebecca Zlotowski
Runtime: 94 minutes
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Léa Seydoux, Olivier Gourmet, Denis Ménochet.
Trailer: “Explain to the kid.” (warning: Léa Seydoux will seduce you through this clip.)
Viewed as part of the Alliance Française Film Festival, 2014.
Plot: The outstanding Grand Central centres on the running of a French nuclear power plant, and the subcontractors hired as maintenance and decontamination workers in a new era of privatisation of risk. EnterGary – unemployed, unskilled, and unaware of the forces against which he will contend – as the latest inductee; who promptly falls for his supervisor’s wife, exposes himself to a large dose of radiation, begins an affair, and starts falsifying his fitness tests. Gary’s only comfort is an ad hoc community of fellow labourers; but he risks losing both them and his health for reasons both clear and submerged.
Zombie Digression: If I were a powerful, film-loving necromancer then there would be no doubt in my mind which peerless director I would raise from the dead and set about making just one last film. Without question, I’d be telling zombie Andrei Tarkovsky to quit his gravelly moaning about “Мозги!” and get cracking on Stalker 2: Stalk Harder. Sure, the metaphysical imagery and contemplation of man’s relationship with God in the modern world might be gone – replaced with zombie Tarkovsky’s terrifying experience of the cold, unwelcoming grave – but I’d still watch the shit out of that film. I’d wager Tarkovsky’s partially submerged, post-apocalyptic tone would remain intact. And plenty of panning shots over crap in water. But still, it’d be great.
[Non-Zombie Digression: If I were able to force a living director to make another film, it also be without question – Tommy Wiseau, of The Room fame. Sure, lightning is unlikely to strike twice, but I’d watch with fascination anyway. It could even be The Room 2: Oh, hai! Doggy; and given the level of continuity and logic established with the first instalment, it could begin with (a zombie?) Johnny/Tommy entering with a classic “Oh, hai! Greg.” (Lisa could literally be tearing him apart! Seriously, that film has to be made.) But I digress.]
Review: Sadly I’m not a necromancer, just a film lover. But all is not lost – while watching Rebecca Zlotowski’s latest film Grand Central I was forcefully reminded that the themes and techniques that made Tarkovsky’s films so powerful are still alive and well, being taken up by a new generation of filmmakers and adapted to new purposes.
On the surface, Grand Central is simply a story of romance and infidelity among a community of casual labourers and economic migrants; just like Andrei Rublev is about some guy who has to paint a ceiling. But this is no run-of-the-mill melodrama. What disrupts the surface of this straightforward, human narrative is the location that predominates in every establishing shot – a fully operational nuclear power plant, improbably nestled in the isolated countryside. This location forms the centre of gravity of the film; distorting the lives that flow about it, and throwing the film’s characters into an unnatural proximity. Its ventilation stacks loom in the background; its siren pierces the summer; the inevitable return to it shadows the conclusion of every frame.
Unsurprisingly, this proximity births both licit and illicit relationships – an engagement of supervisor Toni to employee Karole; an affair between newcomer Gary and Karole; and intimate, suffocating friendships between all community members which become essential to surviving their day jobs in the power plant.
The film contrasts two breathtaking settings; a state of nature in the countryside where Karole and Gary conduct their affair, and the vast inhuman spaces inside the power plant itself. The work the contractors is inherently dangerous, their ability to work not determined by if they have absorbed radiation during the course of duties but by how much radiation they absorbed. Tension is derived from Gary’s slowly rising levels; we know that he has to work to support a family back home, but cannot if he absorbs too much. Mistakes happen; Garystarts lying and falsifying; the work is made more risky and damaging through a hinted at profit motive and a don’t-ask management. Something will break; and the film skilfully hints at many options.
And this is where the touch of Tarkovsky comes in. The power plant itself is an indifferent setting of concrete and steel; animated by the procedures its unnaturally swathed workers use to keep invisible forces at bay. The audience is kept on edge as damage and death is implied by every deviation, every innocuous mistake. Yet the setting remains transcendently indifferent to the fates of the untrained acolytes that tend it. Not the workers themselves; where the mistakes made inside tear at the fabric of relationships outside, or the tensions and dramas outside compound a split-second reaction inside. It is hard to reconcile the interplay of these two settings, and the different modes of being the individuals inhabit when they are in them; lush green and a summer lake against a hard white and concrete, implacable steel and invisible forces.
I was reminded again and again of Stalker; particularly the leisurely, almost relaxed conversations that the three seekers would have among the trees and grass of the zone, against the unnatural hangar full of perfect dunes or the rusted metal tunnel of the meat grinder. In Stalker too, the threats are invisible and unknown – but their effects are easily read off the faces of the actors. Both films successfully capture, among other things, two fundamental elements – the way we shift from one way of being to another, heavily weighed on by the nature of that space; and secondly, the way in which the spaces themselves are fundamentally beyond us, tied down as we are in human concerns. Both Tarkovsky and Zlotowski are successful in capturing the fundamentals of a transcendent inhumanism. The forces beyond us that shape us; the dividing line between life and nothingness. Both directors deftly leave any conclusions from this up to the individual audience member.
Grand Central also succeeds through the strength of its performances; particularly that of Léa Seydoux and Denis Ménochet. As Karole, Seydoux doesn’t seem to act but merely be captured on film in candid moments, so successfully and compellingly does she inhabit her character. Ménochet sells the machismo and confidence of his character, showing us why Karole loves him within the limits set by their strange community; he also sells the second that ingrained bravado breaks, forcing him into a hard reckoning. The supporting cast turns in solid performances; Rahim performing a deft trick of transforming a leading man role into a transparent vehicle for the audience to confront the narrative themselves. This is a high compliment, both to Rahim himself who senses what the role needs, and to Zlotowski in guiding him to that performance.
Grand Central is an outstanding film. Weeks later I still find myself thinking about Toni, Karole, Gary; that stunning summer setting – and most iconically, the force that rests at the heart of the film itself.
Rating: Four stars; zombies aside, no mucking around.
I pity the fool that don't buy this film: