A love triangle so intense it’s practically radioactive foregrounds “Grand Central,” an engrossing, superbly acted working-class melodrama set in and around a massive nuclear power plant. At times resembling a more testosterone-heavy “Silkwood,” this accomplished sophomore feature for writer-director Rebecca Zlotowski lacks some of the bracing originality of her 2010 debut, “Belle epine,” but the pic’s lean, confident direction and standout perfs confirm her as one of France’s brightest, most serious-minded young helmers. Topical setting and the presence of rising star Lea Seydoux should ensure ample interest from fests and French cinema showcases, plus some limited arthouse exposure in key offshore markets.
As in her previous feature, which set a young woman’s coming-of-age against the subculture of illegal street motorcycle racing, Zlotowski again shows an affinity for depicting insular communities situated far from the beaten path. Seen arriving by train in the opening scene, unskilled laborer Gary (Tahar Rahim) has come to the power plant somewhere in the French countryside looking for some quick, decent money. There, he is recruited for an “outage” (i.e., maintenance) job that involves working in close proximity to the nuclear reactor ― close enough that workers must wear electronic “doseometers” that track their amount of radiation exposure. “It’s like sunburn,” Gary tells his sister, as if trying to convince himself, during a brief visit home that reveals much about his strained family situation.
Back at the plant, Gary gradually becomes part of a different family ― the family of fellow workers that includes the garrulous Giles (Dardenne brothers regular Olivier Gourmet, first seen riding a mechanical bull at the local watering hole), brooding Toni (Denis Menochet) and Toni’s sultry fiancee, Karole (Lea Seydoux, who also starred in “Belle epine”). There’s an almost visible spark between Giles and Karole, and it isn’t long before the two are taking long moonlit strolls away from Toni’s prying eyes, and then doing more than just strolling.
If the mechanics of the plot sometimes feel a touch too mechanical ― chiefly, the looming portent that either the plant or the people in it are headed for a meltdown ― there’s nothing predictable about the pic’s central trio of perfs, especially that of Rahim (“A Prophet”), who has a surfeit of old-fashioned movie-star charisma but plays Gary with a counterintuitive, circumspect edge, always trying to defuse a potential fight rather than playing tough. Menochet (so memorable as the French farmer hiding a family of Jews under his floorboards in the opening scene of “Inglourious Basterds”) does marvelous things here with his heavy-lidded proletarian face, the very embodiment of a man worn low by time and disappointment. The simmering, unarticulated tension between the two characters reaches something of a fever pitch when Gary heroically comes to Toni’s aid during an accident at the plant, exposing himself to a high radiation dose in the process.
Seydoux (herself an alum of “Basterds,” in which she played Menochet’s daughter) is cast as a more conventional object of desire here than the one she plays in Palme d’Or winner “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” but she’s vivid and touching as a woman looking for some kind of escape, some new stimulus in her life.
The plant itself ― a real, decommissioned nuclear facility in Austria commandeered for the shoot ― becomes virtually a living, breathing character itself under Zlotowski’s watchful eye, with much time devoted to day-to-day particulars, and how the seemingly ironclad rules can (as in any workplace) be bent by those clever or desperate enough to do so. Together with cinematographer George Lechaptois, Zlotowski creates a series of striking visual contrasts, shooting in smooth, almost clinical HD for the plant interiors and denser, more lyrical 35mm for all other scenes. Dissonant electronic music score by French enhances the mood of steadily mounting unease.