★★★★☆
Four Stars

“See. You felt everything. Fear, worry, blurred vision, dizziness, shaky legs. That’s the full experience.” These are the words of Lea Seydoux’s Karole to Tahar Rahim’s Gary after their first romantic encounter, making explicit the central conceit of Grand Central, a French romantic drama which explores the toxicity of love through a forbidden affair forged in the shadow of a nuclear power plant. Gary is a migrant worker who joins a team of labourers led by Karole’s fiancé that works in the innermost sections of the reactor. Here, tensions mount as loyalties are tested and lives put in danger, lending the film an unexpected claustrophobia, even whilst the disparate tones of Rebecca Zlotowski’s film never entirely connect. 

Whilst the film’s title ostensibly refers to the name of its nuclear power plant setting, its ironic bent becomes clear within minutes of the film’s opening, as we observe that little about these character’s lives is either grand or centralised, with their time divided between minimum wage work at the plant and a mundane existence in an impoverished trailer park. It is here that the lovers’ secret affair occurs, but it is in the plant where it threatens to unravel tenuous but vital bonds of loyalty. Compounded by the divisions of class and gender inherent in the film’s setting, the film develops an escalating sense of peril which sustains into the film’s credits. Zlotowski’s interest in the peripheral existence of the cast of migrants, gypsies and criminals imbues the film with social realism and capitalist critique, as the disadvantaged characters sell their health, identity and futures to the plant’s toxic operation.

For all these poetic and academic ambitions that distance Zlotowski’s directorial voice from that of the characters, both are deeply preoccupied with the properties of skin, particularly how it is displayed and concealed. An early flirtation which sees our lovers’ bodies trapped behind white work overalls cuts to a later scene of his arm pressed tightly against her naked leg in a secretive and sexually charged exchange in the back of a car. These juxtapositions of concealment and exposure show how these lovers find comfort and sexuality in each others skin, even as they view their own with increasing paranoia.

Zlotowski’s camera lingers over the characters’ bare flesh as they go about their days, capturing glimpses of the eroticism they find in their forbidden liaisons. The recurring shots of manic scrubbing and relentless showering combine the tension of the plant with the tensions of the affair; the lovers struggle to scrub the traces of radiation from their bodies, but also traces of each other. This constant eroticism effectively foregrounds the simmering romance at the story’s core, even whilst the elements of social realist drama occasionally threaten to overwhelm it.

However, the film operates as a strange mix of genres and ideas, with the saturated blues and greens of the excruciatingly tense scenes inside the plant reminiscent of science fiction, whilst around the trailer park the film shifts between gritty drama and romanticised sex scenes which unfold in sun dappled fields. These varying tones capture the conflicting moods of the film, and illuminate the fractured relationships at the core of the narrative, but the shifts between them feel uneasy, and consequently the film never coalesces into an entirely satisfactory whole.

Furthermore, the film’s attempts to balance its lyricism with its realism results in several overwritten scenes that sacrifice consistency of character to the film’s larger points about the destructive power of love. This imbalance is also felt in the predictable ending, where the film’s poetic sensibilities overpower the narrative, leaving the emotional arcs of the characters feeling somewhat incomplete.

With regards to the film’s performances, Tahar Rahim makes for a likeable protagonist, playing his undereducated labourer with a sweet innocence even as he knowingly jeopardises the safety of himself and those around him for his own selfishness. Meanwhile Lea Seydoux brings her usual intensity to the part of Karole, filling the screen with a confidence and barely suppressed rage which is gradually stripped away to reveal some of the actresses’ most delicate and affecting work to date. Seydoux uses her aggressive femininity to challenge the male character’s dichotomous sexual identities and machismo, bringing an added dimension to the film’s social exploration. The ensemble cast also deliver affecting work in supporting roles, particularly Denis Ménochet as Karole’s fiancé, who adds shades of sadness and jealousy beneath his character’s macho facade.

Ultimately, Grand Central‘s themes and performances are interesting enough for the film to remain compelling even as it struggles to decide on its identity.  Rebecca Zlotowski has crafted a poetic examination of forbidden love which is grounded in a fascinating exploration of marginalized workers, and in which the potent setting creates a consistent tension that elevates the film over other contemporary romances.