Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 20, 2014 4:21 am 
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Dangerous love, dangerous work

In her second film Rebecca Zlotkowski works for tension by playing off two kinds of danger. Young Gary Manda (Tahar Rahim) comes to work as a low-level employee at a French nuclear plant. Then he connects with another worker, Karole (Léa Seydoux) and they have a hot affair, despite her being the fiancee of longtime employee Toni (Denis Ménochet). The team leader and promoter of esprit de corps is the loud, dominant Gilles (Olivier Gourmet). Using realistic location scenes and oppressive sound Zlotkowski gives the viewer an intense awareness of the danger of the work, far greater for the working class peons than higher-ups who get a different parking lot, better protection, and of course higher pay. What has this got to do with Gary and Karole? Nothing, really. And a slightly confusing finale points up that things aren't profoundly worked out. Nonetheless the hot love affair is played by hot young French actors of the moment. Gourmet can always be counted on to provide intensity and authenticity. And the less defined other players look right. Zlotkowski has made a good movie. But considering that Rahim debuted in Audiard's A Prophet and also played last year in Farhadi's The Past while Seydoux won a double prize at Cannes for her performance in Blue Is the Warmest Color, Grand Central feels like a relatively minor effort -- despite it too debuting in A Certain Regard at Cannes; a nomination for Gourmet at this year's Césars; and high French critical approval indicated by an Allociné press rating for Grand Central of 3.9 out of 5. But Grand Central has the feel of a good, solid old school American film, and Zlotkowski has cited an admiration for Frankenheimer, Nicholas Ray, and Raoul Walsh.

Grand Central will be remembered for its relentless and troubling concentration of the daily grind of low level nuclear workers whose routine means constant low levels of exposure to dangerous radiation and day-to-day danger of a misstep or accident that may do more serious damage. The radiation level cards the workers are wearing on the job are always ticking. It's not ever a matter of no exposure but of how much. The film starts off Gary and Karole in a flashy scene where in front of Gilles and Toni and all their coworker comrades drinking, she goes up to a standing Gary, just arrived, and gives him a long kiss whose effect of making him scared and nervous and excited and dizzy she declares is just what getting a "dose" (of radiation) feels like. Even long before Gary even goes into the training, in the opening scene of the film action begins at a high pitch with a future coworker picking his pocket on a train and him running angrily after the guy to grab it back.

Effort is made to counteract Tahar Rahim's slight, mild appearance by demonstrating repeatedly that he is fearless and physically strong. Audiard used him the same way but far more richly in A Prophet, introducing his character as a young prisoner who's a virtual virgin in tough jailbird ways -- but he's in for killing a cop, and soon is forced by mafiosos to kills another Arab prisoner, proving his looks are deceptive. An obvious contrast comes in the use of Olivier Gourmet, a big, heavy, blustering man who yet ultimately reveals a sense of hopelessness and defeat. Léa by further contrast seems poorly used here. The same tough edge that fit her role as the older lesbian lover in Blue Is the Warmest Color (and she still seems to have the short-cropped haircut of Kechich's film) makes her neutral and flat in this factory environment where she fits in a bit too well. It's never clear whether Gary and Karole represent a star-crossed love affair or just compulsive young sex.

The two turning points come obviously enough. Karole gets pregnant, and Toni can't father a child (due to radiation it's hinted) so it's obviously not his. Yet Karole pushes on for her and Toni to marry posthaste. Perhaps due to a reckless feeling prompted in him by these events -- the action is too breathless to know -- Gary gets overexposed to radiation and is furloughed from the plant.
The relentless electronic soundtrack suggests the director doesn't fully trust her film or her audience, but it works just the same. If you're responding, you watch in a state of constant tension that the electronics control and buy into the French blub that says "Every day becomes a menace."

Grand Central, 94 mins., scripted by Gaëlle Macé and Rebecca Zlotowski, debuted in Un Certain Regard at Cannes and opened in French cinemas 28 Aug. 2013. Screened for this review as part of the 6-15 Mar. 2014 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, a joint series run by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York, and UniFrance.

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