Warning! You May Be Exposed to Love

in 51st Viennale - Vienna International Film Festival

by Pascal Blum

French director Rebecca Zlotowski’s smart love story Grand Central nabs the FIPRESCI prize at the 51st Viennale.

Grand Central, an intelligently constructed drama by French writer-director Rebecca Zlotowski that stirred some interest when it was shown in the “Un certain regard” section at Cannes earlier this year topped a strong list of films eligible for the Fipresci prize at the 51st Viennale. It included the much-debated The Act of Killing, the tense Greek documentary To the Wolf (Sto Lyko) and the dreamy debut It Felt Like Love.

Grand Central opens on Gary (Tahar Rahim) smoking and standing in the aisle of a shabby train in France. A guy walks past him, pickpocketing his wallet. What happens next is not what you’d expect — an act of violence maybe — but rather a gentle kind of revenge. Soon, the uneducated Gary lands a temp job at a nuclear power plant. He’s intrigued by the workers’ sense of community in the perilous place. Not only does chief Gilles (Olivier Gourmet) tell his young protégés to look out for one another, he also teaches them the value of solidarity by way of rather insidious exercises. Then, Gary is exposed to a different set of risks that, as it turns out, is not that different at all. He meets beautiful Karole (Léa Seydoux) who works at the bar amidst the worker’s dilapidated quarters and is about to get married to Gary’s co-worker Toni (Denis Ménochet). Their first encounter plays like a take on classic Hollywood romance: Karole walks towards Gary and kisses him, thus illustrating the effect of radiation sickness which is similar to falling in love because both lead to dizziness and scary feelings which consume the whole body.

The analogies are cranked up to Defcon 1 in Rebecca Zlotowski’s follow-up to her debut Dear Prudence (Belle Épine). But the young Parisian writer-director — she’s only 33 — manages to fuse a well-researched, richly textured portrayal of a dangerous workplace with a soaring sense of romance. The power plant’s sirens blast across the lush surroundings: Gary and Karole meet in secret for fervid trysts near the sunlit river, and it’s as if nature recognizes their passion and blooms anew. Karole essentially gives herself to Gary — or so it seems — most poignantly when she lies down on the grass and rolls up her sweater while wearing nothing underneath. (At this point in Seydoux’s career, her admirers should be able to draw her breasts from memory.)

The script by Zlotowski and co-author Gaëlle Macé is inspired by Élisabeth Filhol’s novel La centrale about blue-collar workers at nuclear power plants in France. But Zlotowski is perfectly capable of populating her own universe with nuanced and carefully cast characters. The standout performance is by Tahar Rahim, the crook-turned-kingpin in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (Un prophète). With his scrubby charisma, he has such intense presence that he grabs our attention just by starring into the distance. Dardenne regular Olivier Gourmet gives an energetic performance akin to his role of the MC in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Black Venus (Vénus noire). Seydoux is positively seductive; she seems to have stepped down from the movie screen into a scruffy little world. Supported by George Lechaptois’s elegantly flowing camera, Zlotowski conjures up a working class milieu full of softhearted people who work a hazardous day job: Gary only keeps his by resorting to life-threatening tricks.

It could all go horribly wrong: one can tell by the remarkably moody soundtrack choices — among them the singular bodily sounds of American saxophone virtuoso Colin Stetson — that Zlotowski is part of a privileged bohemian scene. But while her tale of danger and forbidden love is invested with glimpses of hope and a cleverly mastered pop sensibility, its take on a precarious reality remains compassionate. What makes Grand Central truly grand though is this: with her unabashedly romantic worldview, Zlotowski suggests that life, in fleeting moments, can become more cinematic than cinema itself. It may seem silly, but it’s quite daring: Zlotowski goes where directors working in a similar vein — the Dardenne brothers come to mind — would never go. In a way, she’s indebted to Agnès Varda’s sad and hopeful Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7) and maybe also to the flowery love stories of German auteur Rudolf Thome.

Edited by Tara Judah