Lea Seydoux and Tahar Rahim are unquestionably two darlings of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, taking front and center in two films a piece (the respective others being Blue Is the Warmest Colour and The Past), coming together for Rebecca Zlotowski‘s sophomore feature, the bizarre and unsettling romantic thriller-drama Grand Central.
Gary (Rahim) begins the story unemployed and desperate for work, when he begrudgingly takes an assignment as a decontaminator of nuclear reactors. The real drama, at least initially, comes after hours when Gary meets a gorgeous, provocative co-worker named Karole (Seydoux), and an uneasy romance begins to blossom. As the tensions rise in both the nuclear reactor and the relationship, it heads towards a dangerous payoff in both the literal and figurative senses.
Depicting the everyday rigors of working in a nuclear power plant might not sound like it would provide fertile ground on which to sprinkle the seeds of a movie romance, and in many ways this is not wrong. This film is no swooning romance. However, observing the rigid rituals Gary must go through when reporting for work — wearing latex gloves and being scanned for contamination when entering the site — makes for a potent combination with the gruelling sexual tension which abounds when he first meets Karole, both in spite and because of the fact that she is clearly in a relationship with a co-worker, Toni (Denis Menochet).
As Gary is constantly reminded of the dangers of a radiation overdose, he should be almost as concerned about the love he’s filling up on, also. And together, these unsettling elements are guaranteed to keep viewers on edge even in the more straightforward first two acts of the film.
Combining such diffuse elements could have made for a failure of a curio, though above all else it is the performances that drive the material home. Seydoux is well-cast as the gorgeous sexpot who not only bears all during the film’s numerous sex scenes. More importantly she seems to fear real commitment, fleeting senselessly between Toni and Gary without making a firm choice, much to their mutual frustration.
While Seydoux smolders with her usual scarcely contained intensity, Rahim is the reliable everyman he has assumed regularly until now, albeit slightly more downtrodden, as desperation for both love and money drive him towards some increasingly dangerous working conditions. Zlotowski’s juxtaposition of prospectively suffering from radiation sickness compared with love sickness makes for one of the most peculiarly enticing romances in recent cinema history.
We might think we can see where things are going as the tension within the love triangle heats up, but Zlotowski fields out a few pleasant surprises, and the easy chemistry between Seydoux and Rahim serves as a potent distraction from any beats we might catch coming our way. The tantalizing Karole, with her erratic behavior and string of revelations, keeps both Gary and the audience on their toes, as the film heads towards an undeniably bleak finale.
Some might be quick to interpret the film as anti-nuclear proganda, though the noxious setting is wrapped convincingly enough in the central romance that audiences may not even make this connection. Shot home with a propulsive, unnerving score and tack-sharp cinematography, Grand Central wipes away the cobwebs of trite Hollywood romance to deliver something that is truly difficult to shake.
The Upside: There is simply not a romance like it; Rahim and Seydoux commit strongly to their roles, making for a convincingly awkward courting period, infused with plenty of the complexity facing contemporary relationships (and some of it less so).
The Downside: Viewers might see the setting as conceding a propagandist bent against nuclear power, and the sheer weirdness of the romance will be enough to turn off more casual audiences.
On the Side: Zlotowski’s previous film, Belle Epine, also starred Seydoux.