Grand Central

France (2013) Dir. Rebecca Zlotowski

Quiet often when there is a love triangle, the third person to enter the fray and upset the harmony of the established relationship is referred to as being “toxic”, especially if they have a reputation that precede them. In the case of the illicit affair detailed in this film, even without the prior reputation, “toxic” is far more apposite a description than usual.

Arriving in the French countryside looking for work, unskilled drifter Gary (Tahar Rahim) take a job working at a nuclear reactor where he and his workmates risk being exposed to radiation on a daily basis, despite wearing thick protective suits. Among the team members Gary joins is Toni (Denis Menochet) a brooding, quick to anger bear of a man but also with a generous side.

Toni is engaged to the flirtatious Karole (Lea Seydoux), who also works at the reactor in the laundry department. She takes a shine to Gary and the inevitable affair begins, with Karole soon falling pregnant. However Tony is sterile and news of the affair begins to spread among their group of friends.

You have to hand it to writer-director Rebecca Zlotowski for finding an original scenario around which to base the age old love triangle concept, while keeping things topical in the wake of recent nuclear related disasters. However this is not the central focus of the story since the threat of radiation is localised to the workers at the plant and not a widespread general catastrophe.

This essentially makes the plot fairly easy to predict in terms of the eventual crisis which threatens to ruin three lives but Zlotowski chooses the slow burn route in telling the story, teasing the threat of the radiation claiming its victims in between building the camaraderie of the team which is about to be broken apart.

As a newbie Gary is put under the tutelage of supervisor Gilles (Olivier Gourmet), an ebullient but hot headed man, and Toni. Living quarters all being in close proximity and social activities revolve around this tight knit cadre, among which a clear sense of trust had been built. On his first night when Gary asks what the feeling of radiation is like, Karole gets up and kisses him sensually, by way of a practical demonstration.

Yet Toni doesn’t fly off the handle and attack either of them, taking it in the playful spirit it which Karole (presumably) meant it, laughing about it with everyone else and enjoying some of this passion afterwards himself. From this we are led to assume that Karole is either generous with her affections or a promiscuous temptress, the latter somewhat affirmed by her and Gary enjoying a riverside bonk a couple of days later.

From here it is a case of “let the awkwardness begin”, with Gary finding it hard to look Toni in the face, especially as he borrowed money from him on his first day, while Karole consumes his every thought at work. The tease is now which disaster is going to occur first – someone being exposed to radiation or Toni discovering about the fling?

Zlotowski had ample opportunity to have each scene balanced precariously on a razor’s edge with this double danger but doesn’t seem too interested in taking this route, which is rather disappointing. That isn’t to say she should have turned this into a tense thriller with a stirring musical score to accentuate the potential horror, or feed us numerous near misses for that jump scare sensation, but the lack of emergency and uncertainty the character should endure leaves us with a film that plateaus fairly early on.

The scenes where the workers are put in danger from the radiation ups the energy level (pardon the pun) somewhat and offer some genuine excitement (beyond that of what Lea Seydoux’s naked body will for some of the audience) and are well shot. When Toni end up in trouble and Gary exposes himself to the radiation to save him, Zlotowski’s restrained approach actually makes the panic feel naturally dramatic instead of forced.

A lot of the run time is dedicated to sharing in depth the rigorous daily routines and procedures the workers have to go through, from the many layers of protective clothing to the multiple showers, stringent safety checks and the hi-tech scanner readings. If someone is contaminated the cleansing process is just as thorough, but this is merely superficial – the true suffering is just as psychological as it is a strain on their health.

Perhaps then the reason for the film being slow in pace is because the contamination is a metaphor as much as it is a very real threat. Gary has been exposed to Karole’s sexual advances and this has consumed him; Gary has “contaminated” Karole with his seed, which has become a threat to her relationship with Toni, while Toni’s sterility is a reflection of the ennui that Karole feels in both her job and her love life.  

While this all sounds profound and clever, these metaphors will be too dense to read for some viewers who will just see a maudlin drama about an affair set at a nuclear reactor. It is just as well that this aspect is well played out and substantial enough not to be overshadowed by any intellectual meanings to keep both the thinkers and the non-thinkers happy.  

On the plus side it thrives on the superb lead performances of Tahar Rahim and Lea Seydoux, for whom this was an award winning breakthrough role before Blue Is The Warmest Colour shot her to international fame. The whole cast commit themselves to what appears on the surface to be a “small film”, in turn elevating it to seem more significant than it feels.

Whether it is too clever or not clever enough with the metaphors, Grand Central is an interesting little film with a unique and fertile premise that stays a little much on the pedestrian side to create the impact it aspires to.