Both the romance and the electrons are charged in Rebecca Zlotowski’s Grand Central (2013), a French melodrama about illicit love in the shadow of a nuclear power plant. Tahar Rahim is Gary, a working class nomad who finds a job decontaminating aging cores at a rural power station. It’s better paid than normal, but that’s because of the danger of radioactive contamination, which reveals itself to be less a threat than an everyday occurrence. He bonds with a local downtrodden traveller community with his boss, Toni (Denis Menochet), and Toni’s fiancée Karole, played by Léa Seydoux, more guarded but just as sultry as she was in Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013).
Explaining the effect of nuclear contamination, Karole plants a smacker on Gary, suggesting his weak-knees and dizziness is just what will happen after a radioactive dose. “You fail the dose”, she whispers, his heart beating faster and sweat on his brow. Of course, that’s not the last kiss between the two, as they embark on an affair prompted by elemental feelings – is the nuclear plant taking on a life of its own, charging the atmosphere? The strange beauty of their surroundings, and the menace that lies beneath, resemble the erotic drama Stranger by the Lake (2013), released earlier this year. It doesn’t always work: the sex is perfunctory, but despite only the bare bones of emotional attachment, director Zlotowski holds your gaze, revealing a strange and unfettered sophistication to this murky affair.
Altogether more successful are the scenes inside the station itself, and there’s real currency in that it’s filmed at an actual plant in Austria that was built but never operated. As if to emphasise this, the scenes in Gary’s rural community and in the open air are filmed in 35mm, while the inside the plant is crisper HD and played beneath an eerie score by Rob that ratchets up the tension. In Gary’s plant, employees have to keep their radiation levels down in order not to be laid off. One manager warns, “You might lose your job, but you’ll keep your health.” To Gary, though, desperate for work, fabricating his records comes instinctively. At one point he rescues Toni, now a romantic foil, in an accident at the plant, exposing himself to dangerous radiation levels in the process.
However, it’s as stupid as it is brave (“Why did you take your gloves off?” one colleague asks) as we come to understand these contracted workers haven’t nearly the training that this kind of work entails; hired instead as cheap, willing labour for a difficult task. Zlotowski doesn’t go for a political theme – this is not The China Syndrome (1979) – so her directorial command feels a little slack here, especially when viewed in the knowledge of France’s nuclear industry, which provides 80% of the country’s energy needs. Still, the shadow of the Fukushima disaster surely weighs heavily – as the levels go up, Grand Central is heading for a meltdown, emotional and radioactive.