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GFF 2014: ‘Grand Central’ is a stylish but problematic romantic drama

GFF 2014: ‘Grand Central’ is a stylish but problematic romantic drama

Grand Central Poster Rebecca Zlotowski

Grand Central
Written by Gaëlle Macé and Rebecca Zlotowski
Directed by Rebecca Zlotowski
France/Austria, 2013

Set against the imposing backdrop of a nuclear power station, Rebecca Zlotowski’s second feature is more a critique of France’s working class macho culture than the exploitative nature of the industry itself. The tremendous cooling towers dominate the screen like malignant remnants of the industrial age, but it is the young men themselves, unskilled, reckless and amoral, that appear to be the problem. Lured by the promise of easy money, they are happy to expose themselves daily to ‘the dose’ of radioactivity but show little respect for the danger this entails or for their fellow workers.

Grand Central focuses on Gary (Tahar Rahim) who, despite having a criminal past and no qualifications, impresses the other men with his casual intelligence, confident attitude and ability to ride a mechanical bull. Plant veterans Gilles (Olivier Gourmet) and Toni (Denis Ménochet) take him under their wing, but their relationship is immediately undermined by Gary’s infatuation with Toni’s fiancé Karole (Léa Seydoux). It starts when she kisses him publicly, without meaning; he takes this as an affront and sets out to make her mean it. They begin a complicated love affair, driven by lust, jealously, defiance and betrayal, which comes to represent their only means of escape from the brutal reality of their world and the dangerous situation they have got themselves into.

Grand Central Tahar Rahim Lea Seydoux Grass

Stylistically, their love is exhibited as a classical romance, characterised by passionate sex on a pastoral riverbank, but the reality could not be further from the truth. The most memorable of their secret rendezvous consists of a gorgeously dreamlike midnight cruise down the river that ends with Karole offering herself to Gary. She gradually lifts her dress, revealing her naked body in the moonlight, as cellos start to dominate the score. It transitions, through an old-fashioned fade to the centre of the screen, to a gang of crocodiles snapping at raw meat in the sunshine. The exquisitely poetic image is snatched away, revealed as a fantasy.

There is little doubt that both characters want to believe in this likeness of their relationship, especially Gary who eventually pins his life on it. However, even if Karole was everything he fools himself into thinking she is, this oppressed beauty in need of rescuing, he has no right to be the one to do so. Rather than proving his love to her and his moral superiority over Toni, he acts as though she is already his and it is only a matter of time. When he realises it might not be so easy, he gets frustrated and loses his cool, demonstrating neither the spirit nor the strength he requires. When it comes down to it, man against man, he is horribly limited.

Grand Central Tahar Rahim Train

However, it is not just Gary but this entire culture that comes under fire, this egoism and competitive edge, this need to expose yourself to more and more of the dose to prove yourself. The characters resemble the travelling labour force you might find in the Great Depression or a Jack Kerouac novel, but lack the sense of brotherhood or communal spirit. Their politics are non-existent. The greed, ruthlessness and lack of compassion that allows their bodies to be put on the line is no different to the cursory every-man-for-himself ideology they propagate amongst themselves. The older men, Gilles in particular, maintain a sense of workmanship and collective duty, but it is clear that this attitude is dying out. They are increasingly disheartened by the quality of the individuals they have to work with and not only because of the lax training and poor standards of employee welfare.

There are glimpses of humanity and moments when, in spite of themselves, the characters unite against their mutual hazards. There are even times when you get the impression that Gary and Karole are sincere in their love and really would do anything for one another. Throughout the film, Zlotowski demonstrates an excellent eye for visuals, culminating in a magnificent dinner party that draws its symbolism from the Last Supper and original sin. The film also boasts a remarkable score, guiding us beautifully between the industrial and the romantic. But, despite this, Grand Central is incoherent, difficult to read and sends out wildly conflicting messages. The combination of realism and idealism is always problematic, as the images we see don’t always seem to reflect the tone. The nuclear environment on show is clearly reprehensible but the characters scarcely seem to notice, instead focusing on bringing about their own downfall. At no stage do they make it particularly easy to care.

Rob Dickie

Visit the 2014 Glasgow Film Festival’s official website here.