I’m all for economic storytelling, but unless the director is extremely skilled in saying a lot with a little, then connective tissue becomes essential. Unfortunately, director Rebecca Zlotowski constantly forces her film Grand Central to leap forward, and it stumbles every time it lands. The story does have a unique setting and holds our interest for a while as we try to find the common thematic ground between a nuclear power plant and a love affair, but the changes between the two are so abrupt that one side ends up looking like a training video and the other comes off as a choppy melodrama.
Gary Manda (Tahar Rahim) is out of work, and the only job he can get is working at a nuclear power plant. When he arrives, he finds a tight-knit community where the health risks are high, but he does find friends in veterans Gilles (Oliver Gourmet) and Toni (Denis Ménochet). But his closest relationship ends up being with Toni’s fiancée, Karole (Léa Seydoux). What at first seems like a casual acquaintance between the two ends up being a highly charged love affair, and Gary’s desire to stay with Karole puts him in jeopardy as his life at the plant becomes more dangerous.
The speed at which Gary and Karole begin their affair is staggering and strange. At a dinner early in the film, the group is discussing the threat of radiation exposure, and Gary wonders what it feels like. Karole goes over to Gary, gives him a passionate kiss in front of everyone including Toni, and says that the weak-in-the-knees, heart-racing sensation is like a “low dose”. She then casually walks back to Toni, kisses him, and sits in his lap, and Toni seems in no way bothered by what just occurred. As an ignorant American, I can only assume this is acceptable behavior in France (French readers, please feel free to correct me in the comments section). Cultural oddity aside, it’s a clumsy way to tie the “danger” of the two plotlines.
But the affair plotline becomes even more awkward as Gary and Karole quickly rush into a clandestine sexual relationship after riding next to each other in a car. The scene starts off as a subtle, clever way to build tension as Gary and Karole’s bare legs rub up against each other in the backseat. But then we cut to the two having sex in a field. Perhaps any other information on how they got there would be extraneous, but in execution, the jump is jarring, and then we’re right back at the power plant.
I must admit that I found the power plant material fascinating. There’s an attention to detail that’s missing from Gary and Karole’s relationship, and I’ve never seen a movie set in a nuclear power plant that wasn’t on the verge of total meltdown. Usually, that’s the purpose of nuclear power plants in movies: to meltdown. Grand Central brings a specific focus on the jobs required to run a plant and the risks of individual contamination.
As made clear by the overbearing final scene (although there’s an unintentionally hilarious shot that plays during the end credits), Zlotowski intended that these two stories convey a sense of dangerous positions. However, the power plant comes off as far more intense because there’s almost no shading to the characters other than Gilles, who gives us a unique perspective on someone who wants to protect his people, but is increasingly fed up with the job. But we primarily spend time with Gary and Karole, and while Rahim and Seydoux are talented actors who do the most with what they have, Zlotowski doesn’t give them very much other than looks of longing and relaxing in a field.
There are times when the sparseness works in both stories. There’s tension in the power plant and sadness in the affair, especially as Gary and Karole start developing romantic feelings towards each other. However, the staccato pacing constantly disrupts the mood, and while the two plots may share a tenuous thematic connection, they’re never fleshed out to the point where they carry serious dramatic weight. Grand Central tries to be fleet-footed, but it’s constantly falling to the ground.