Rebecca Zlotowski’s Grand Central is a strange film. Its main thrust, a fraught adult drama, plays out in the ominous shadow of a hulking nuclear power plant, where the invasive klaxon pollutes the surrounding air as its core eats away at the health of the myriad low-level employees. In truth, however, it is the depiction of blue-collar life at the hazardous coalface, rather than anything else, that forms the most compelling part of an occasionally fascinating picture.
Tahar Rahim plays unskilled drone Gary Manda, a willing worker who signs up for a place on the decontamination unit which spends its days deep in the perilous bowels of the reactors. They clean walls, carry out maintenance and try desperately to steer clear of the radiation levels that are likely to result in the sack. Exposure is unavoidable, goes the message, just don’t let it take your job away.
Rahim, so impressive in Jacques Audiard’s exhilarating A Prophet, wields an unthreatening everyman quality which renders him likeable in spite of his character’s faintly needy edge and one is struck by the delight he displays in securing employment, in finding familial camaraderie with his workmates. As he conquers a mechanical rodeo bull on his boozy first night, there is a sense of genuine triumph in the way his peers carry him from the bar on their shoulders, an instant working-class hero.
He even appears less than concerned that he might suffer contamination by ‘the dose’ which his more experienced colleagues talk about both with respect and casual disregard. Under the luckiest circumstances, a blast of ‘the dose’ might even result in a kiss from a beautiful woman, in this case Léa Seydoux’s sensual, watchful Karole, herself a plant employee and fiancée of flinty core-diver Toni (the ever magnetic Denis Ménochet).
The blossoming romance between Gary and Karole, all bucolic strolls and riverside trysts, feels strained, marked by unspoken contradictions. Karole’s own complex relationship with Toni is potent and her feelings for the smitten Gary remain unclear until the end. Given the setting it is no surprise that the crackling chemistry between all three is tangible. Unfortunately for Zlotowski, this central love triangle grates, nibbling at elements of her narrative which are infinitely more interesting.
The French dependence on nuclear energy — 58 reactors provide 75% of the nation’s power — drives a darker theme, one of stark socio-economic exploitation. Gary and his transient friends are more essential to keeping France ticking over than the almost invisible corporate snobs, yet all are entirely expendable. They keeps the lights on, enjoying no security along the way, and possess little beyond the community of their tranquil campsite existence. In all likelihood, of course, there are plenty to replace them.
As one female character faces up to her own severe brush with radiation poisoning, the story barely lingers on her fate. This has happened before; it will happen again. That the wage slaves are essentially on their own in the depths of the facility is obvious, the higher-ups only appear to break bad news or dispense reprimands. Significantly, staff safety is dictated not by the pages of some human resources handbook but in direct, practical terms by plain speaking team leader Gilles (Olivier Gourmet).
In adapting Elisabeth Filhol’s 2010 novel, La Central, Zlotowski tries to keep a lid on the melodrama bubbling beneath an otherwise stoic surface. It leaks out occasionally at unpredictable, unwelcome moments and the director’s unfussy style counters this with varying degrees of success. In one respect her preference for gritty storytelling is welcome but in rushing to define her film by something other than its over-wrought emotional subplot, Zlotowski leaves strands dangling and angles unexplored. The ending itself is classic Euro-cinema: abrupt, opaque and utterly unfulfilling.
Against this backdrop, Gary begins to cheat on his dose levels. He seems desperate to stick around, to maximise his earnings and remain in the orbit of the intoxicating Karole. As the sickly bleeps of the pervasive geiger counters become more pronounced Gary's fate appears sealed, though the reasons for his pre-finale distress are left unexplained. Maybe it is the radiation taking hold; perhaps it is down to Karole’s sullen embrace of married life. Neither explanation is favourable to him.
‘DO NOT GIVE IN TO CURIOSITY’ warns a sign on the workplace wall. It is sound advice, swiftly ignored.
An edited version of this article was first published here.