Aimlessly drifting from one job to the next, Gary (Rahim) finds himself employed as part of a decontamination crew, undertaking hazardous work in nuclear power plants around France. When seemingly promiscuous co-worker Krole (Seydoux), the fiance of fellow crew member Toni (Ménochet), takes him for a quick fumble in the grass, Gary is instantly besotted, and the two conduct an affair. After an accident at work leaves Gary contaminated with a dangerous level of radiation, he fakes his health status so as to avoid being laid off and continue his affair.
When Gaspar Noe gave us his confrontational 1998 drama I Stand Alone, he kick-started a new movement in French cinema: a series of twisted dramas that used the tropes of exploitation movies to critique modern French society. Most relied on in-your face-shocks, and movies like Irreversible, Martyrs and Baise-Moi are among the most controversial films ever released. Rebecca Zlotowski's Grand Central may well signify the beginning of a new French movement, one that again employs horror tropes, but relies on brooding unseen menace rather than onscreen terrors.
From the movie's opening credits - rendered in red on black Futura Extra Bold Condensed, the ubiquitous and over-used font that signifies "Edgy French Drama" in the same way red on white Akzidenz-Grotesk screams "Grossout American Comedy" - we know we're not in for an easy ride, and when we first glimpse the enormous chimney of a nuclear reactor's core, it looms over the drama like Vesuvius over Pompeii.
The constantly roaming handheld camera owes more to gritty British film-making than its more refined cross-channel cousin, but the two schools are vastly different. British dramas tend to give the impression they're made by people who know a lot more about life than of cinema. With the Gallic model it's usually the exact opposite, and that's the case here. The impression given is that Zlotkwski spent her childhood in front of a TV, absorbing a constant stream of classic Hollywood melodramas, followed by teen years in which she embraced 70s horror. With her second feature she blends all these influences into a movie that's not quite the sum of its parts, but like the films of de Palma, displays a love of cinema that makes it difficult to frown upon.
If you've seen Paul Thomas Anderson's last two films, There Will be Blood and The Master, Grand Central can't help but feel familiar (ROB's music owes much to the avant garde Jonny Greenwood scores of those movies). Like Anderson's recent work, it owes much to 50s melodrama, more concerned with being convincingly cinematic than convincingly authentic. With the decontamination crew moving from plant to plant in a convoy of trailers, we're reminded of the great "carny" dramas of the past; movies like Freaks and Nightmare Alley, with their bands of outsiders struggling to eke out an existence. It's the film noir genre, however, that provides the inspiration for the main plot strand of Gary and Karole's affair, though all is not quite what it seems at first, and the cliche of such a dynamic is ultimately turned on its head in a third act twist.
Three of French cinema's finest contemporary stars, Rahim, Ménochet and Seydoux are quietly on fire here, and the latter's introduction, surprising a nervous Rahim with a passionate kiss that serves as a metaphor for his impending contamination (both literal and emotional), is one of the year's great movie moments.
Ending on an ambiguous note that suggests a sequel might resemble a 70s Larry Cohen horror, Grand Central might initially leave you cold, but as your mind returns to it in the following days you'll find yourself as contaminated as its hapless protagonist.
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