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Grand Central | Cannes Review

Soon You Will Know: Zlotowski’s Sophomore Effort a Bleak and Appealing Entanglement

Reuniting with Lea Seydoux, the star of her 2010 film, Belle Epine, filmmaker Rebecca Zlotowski returns with dark romantic drama, Grand Central, set within the closed off community of nuclear power plant workers. The maudlin romantic triangle at the center of the film may unfortunately be overlooked or outshined due to other higher profile projects of domestic discord also featuring this film’s two leads (Lea Seydoux in Blue Is the Warmest Colour; Tahar Rahim in The Past). While not as forceful as either of those two features, Zlotowski’s latest is a superlative portrait of contaminated passion, using its overtly specific metaphors to create a quietly memorable tale.

We meet Gary (Rahim) as he’s being pickpocketed on a train by the scampy Tcherno (Johan Libereau). Catching up with his perpetrator, they bond rather than argue, and we learn they have both landed at a processing station for a nuclear power plant which is teeming with a host of unskilled blue collar workers looking for employment. We learn about the safety practices in the nuclear power plant, how employees check their daily radiation dosages, and the affable man that supervises Gary’s team, Gilles (Olivier Gourmet). Quickly, Gary and Tcherno are indoctrinated into the tight knit community of the plant workers, and Gary befriends Toni (Denis Menochet), who assumes a brotherly role with the rookie. But Toni’s fiancée, Karole (Seydoux), who presents herself rather provocatively to Gary upon their first introduction, soon embarks on a rather torrid love affair with the younger, virile newcomer. Of course, the already intense workplace atmosphere, already a hothouse of emotional miscommunication, soon becomes the template for what’s unfolding in their volatile personal lives.

While Grand Central easily sounds like a melodramatic cliché, Zlotowski instead favors considerable restraint, juxtaposing the sterile and clinical white terror of the confines of the power plant with the warm, inviting living spaces of the plant workers, all residing in close proximity of one another. Karole and Gary’s lovemaking in the fields take on the proportions of a warmly realized dream, and the larger community feels like a familiar group of family members playfully vacationing.

Zlotowski peppers her supporting cast with familiar stalwarts, such as the always enjoyable Olivier Gourmet, a foreman who is worn out, exhausted and at the end of his rope. Denis Menochet, of Inglourious Basterds, and Libereau, of The Witnesseses, are quiet impressive in their limited screen time. After winning praise for her role in Zlotowski’s 2010 debut (among others), Seydoux has made a remarkable name for herself, and she can add Grand Central to her astounding resume, even though her characterization is a bit paltry compared to Rahim, whose quiet presence and consuming desire propels the film into its final, cryptic spasms. For once, he’s the major life force of the story rather than a thinly drawn catalyst.

The warring moods of the film can be credited to the expert cinematography of Georges Lechaptois, and the juxtaposing environments work perfectly to keep us on edge of what otherwise feels like familiar territory. Zlotowski is obviously critical of her chosen locale, but never at the expense of creating warmly drawn and realistic characters, putting faces on a countless number of people looking to live and support families without access to other lucrative avenues. It’s inevitable, of course, that comparisons will be made to Silkwood (1983). While many seem critical of the ambiguous finale, Zlotowski perfectly caps her darkly poetic dream with an oddly breathless moment, set to the eerie sounds of the warning sirens of the nuclear power plant, a heady, unforgettable melding of sight and sound.

Reviewed on May 19th at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival – Un Certain Regard.

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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