GRAND CENTRAL B-
France Austria (94 mi) 2013 d: Rebecca Zlotkowski
France Austria (94 mi) 2013 d: Rebecca Zlotkowski
Love in the ruins of a nuclear power plant―this isn’t exactly the kind of thing that raises eyebrows in the modern world, and is something of a step back from Zlotowski’s first film, the much more promising Belle Épine (2010), a grim but painfully realistic glimpse at grief through the underbelly of teenage angst. The biggest problem here is the mediocrity of the writing, where the French tend to get stereotyped for making so many adultery dramas, or films that reflect the ordinariness of illicit sexual affairs, a subject that has become so commonplace in French films that it affects the way the rest of the world views French society, as this same theme has continually been exported around the world for decades. The truth of the matter is that what it means in France is completely different than elsewhere, where an American public, for instance, would never stand for a President having an affair on the side, as he’d likely be run out of office (The Impeachment Trial of President William Jefferson Clinton), while the French make a habit out of it (The lives and loves of France's presidents - Telegraph). That being said, there is little this film adds to the subject that we haven’t seen before. Actually made “before” the Palme d’Or winning film Blue Is the Warmest Color (La Vie d'Adèle, Chapitres 1 et 2) (2013), a film that created headlines for being the first gay or lesbian themed film to win the coveted prize, but perhaps more notorious for its long and graphic sex scenes between two young and adorable French actresses. The common denominator in both films is the presence of actress Léa Seydoux who stars in both, though her character is much more subdued here. Zlotowski is a filmmaker that prefers to internalize human emotion, sparing the viewers from heated, overly theatrical performances, where just as important is the class structure and social milieu that the characters operate from, where she’s more interested in presenting realistic, near documentary slices of life. What stands out here is the quality of actors involved, where the smoldering presence of Seydoux is paired with Tahar Rahim, whose grim, hauntingly understated performance took place in the stark prison brutality of Jacques Audiard’s 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #10 A Prophet (Un Prophète). One could easily see this film following immediately on the heels of that one, as it begins with Gary (Rahim) as a man with a criminal past being released from prison, where his employment opportunities are extremely limited. Like a scene from Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), Gary has his wallet stolen by a fellow passenger on a train named Tcherno (Johan Libéreau), where the two become friends afterwards, immediately finding themselves facing similar circumstances in the unemployment line.
Steered towards a training program in the only kind of work that would hire unqualified workers, they find themselves with a team of new recruits hired to work side by side with regular workers for routine cleaning and maintenance inside a nuclear reactor. Much like the rigors of prison life, where every action is supervised and monitored, including the wearing of a measuring device that reads daily radiation levels, scrubbing and cleaning themselves in the showers afterwards, it becomes a series of everyday routines, each day the same as the last, where the tiniest of mistakes can be fatal, becoming a dreary and monotonous life in a meticulously overcontrolled environment. Basically they are the canaries in the coal mines, the guinea pigs sent into the most dangerous places, and once exposed to an unhealthy level of radiation, they are simply replaced by new workers that have no idea what they’re getting themselves into. Seen through the constantly probing eyes of Gary, this hellish existence leads to little satisfaction, but a fairly substantial paycheck. Overseen by an older and more experienced team leader Gilles, Dardennes regular Olivier Gourmet, who is seemingly worn out, exhausted, and at the end of his rope, continually fighting the cost cutting measures of the unsympathetic administrator in charge, Morali (Marie Berto), who is little more than a hard ass who rules with threats and an iron fist. In this mind-numbing existence, Gary’s incentive appears to be to volunteer for the most dangerous risks, accompanied by the biggest paychecks. In this way he quickly earns the respect of his fellow workers, including Toni (Denis Ménochet), from Ozon’s In the House (Dans La Maison) (2012), a veteran worker that he successfully helps rescue at one point. Living in a trailer park environment with the rest of the workers, Toni’s attractive girlfriend is Karole (Leydoux) who also works at the plant and dresses scantily while flirtatiously planting a big kiss on his lips as his group initiation in front of everyone at a communal outdoor dinner where there is celebratory singing and excessive drinking. Soon afterwards the two are taking secret walks into the woods where the nuclear towers seen off in the distance become the background of their furious sexual affairs hidden in the tall grass by the lakeside. The drudgery of work and routine is accompanied by a growing need for a sexual outlet, which becomes a continuing desperation, though Karole still remains close to Toni.
While the film is a nightmarish vision of capitalism, where the least educated and lowest paid workers are the most exploited, it also attempts to express a near suicidal impulse on the part of Gary to take greater and greater risks, as if he realizes the short term duration of the work assignment, where other offers may be non-existent. This fatalistic view adds an oppressively downbeat element, the reasons for which he never shares with Karole, as their sexual trysts are mostly wordless without comment, though she may be equally pessimistic, where her disappearances into the woods at the same time as Gary become more and more obvious, even to Toni, though she at least appears to have alternative possibilities that are never explored. Part of this may be because the entire film is seen only through the eyes of Gary, where none of the other characters are really fleshed out, leaving some degree of dissatisfaction with the way the extremely thin narrative is presented. With a complete avoidance of psychology, the film takes us on ever bleaker paths, where it’s unclear just how seriously exposed to radiation Gary becomes over time, as he stops using his monitor, deceiving the medical personnel by leaving the recording instrument in the changing area. When they finally catch on, he’s immediately discharged, where one can only imagine how this will effect him in the future, but it can’t be good. The dangerous hazards of nuclear contamination have never really been explored in films before, where it’s unusual, to say the least, to compound the risks with a seemingly doomed sexual affair. Both actors are clearly invested in their roles, also Karole’s best friend Géraldine, Camille Lellouche, who gets radiation exposure in her hair and is forced to shave her head, where the majority of the interior drama takes place beneath the surface where the director never really connects the invisible forces at work threatening both the personal and professional lives, where the lifeless artificiality of the drab and colorless interiors of the reactor (shot on digital) contrast mightily with the gorgeous exteriors of the natural world outside (shot on 35 mm). Shot by cinematographer Georges Lechaptois, the exteriors are shot at the four towers of the Cruas Nuclear Power Plant between Marseille and Lyon in Southern France along the Rhône River, while the interiors are shot at the inoperable Zwentendorf Nuclear Power Plant in Austria, which was built but never used due to the anti-nuclear crusade in Austria and is used largely as a training facility. While love can blossom from a seemingly toxic environment, Zlotowski accentuates the damage, offering a dismally hopeless view of the future, as the finale reveals another batch of new recruits arriving at the plant, taking the place of those that have already suffered too much radiation exposure.