Rebecca Zlotowski’s Grand Central (2013) arrives in UK cinemas this week after bagging the Prix François Chalais at Cannes last year. Zlotowski again anchors her film with the naturalism of Léa Seydoux after working together on her debut film, 2010’s Belle Épine. With the backdrop of a nuclear power plant in Austria, Grand Central focuses on the plant’s workers and their itinerant existence in a campsite close by. Into this closed community comes Gary (Tahar Rahim), a young man looking for a fresh start and a surrogate family. Taken under the wing of Gilles (Olivier Gourmet) and Toni (Denis Ménochet), Gary appreciates the dignity of hard labour and the comradeship of his fellow colleagues.
Karole (Seydoux) is betrothed to Toni and seems happy within this pastoral reverie, where she wanders through the woods that surround the campsite and plant. Gary’s subdued presence at first allows her to play, but this reaction spills over to glances and touches and soon they have secreted themselves in the woods for nymph and shepherd-like pastoral copulation. Zlotowski makes a claim for comparisons to the Hawksian team-player films such as The Lusty Men (Ray), Parrish (Davies), The Gypsy Moths (Frankenheimer) and Manpower (Walsh). In fact, it’s here where she is arguably most successful. Grand Central’s sensitive portrayal of this downtrodden group of working men and women has a sense of earthy reality that manages to show without ever resorting to overt sentimentality.
Unfortunately, the central love triangle wanders through old ground that has been done better before. Rahim and Seydoux are certainly naturalistic and affecting, but one feels like the schematic nature of the set-up is controlling them rather than the other way around. A search for heroes in Grand Central would be a fool’s errand, but that’s what the director claims with allusions to classic French cinema of the 20th century and its working-class heroes. Rahim’s character is named Gary Manda in tribute to Georges Manda in Jacques Becker’s Casque d’Or (1952), while Denis Ménochet’s Toni is named after the eponymous hero of the Jean Renoir’ Toni (1935). Added to this is the constant plodding and over-obvious symbolism, which does no favours for the director’s failed attempt at subtle comparisons with the out-of-control passions which slowly rise to the foreground mirrored with the effects of radiation poisoning.
The direction of Seydoux is also somewhat perplexing at points. There are no ‘graphic’ sex scenes like the ones in 2013’s Blue Is the Warmest Colour, but the use of full-frontal imagery appears out of place for love-making scenes which are otherwise so restrained. Zlotowksi has also decided to dress Seydoux in clothes that a male director would be questioned about if he had made the decision. She only seems to have one outfit – cut off denim shorts, a beige body suit and no bra – which confuses the characterisation and performance that Seydoux brings to this strangely placid piece. Grand Central is a film that ponders within itself the conscious nature of what might have been. The focus remains on the relationships between these outsiders who exist on the outskirts of a society that no longer wants nor cares for them.