Cannes Review: Tahar Rahim is radioactive in impressive ‘Grand Central’

CANNES – After making her feature film debut with 2010’s “Belle Epine,” director Rebecca Zlotowski returns to Cannes with the compelling new drama “Grand Central.”  While Zlotowski benefits from the presence of a number of critically acclaimed French actors this is the sort sophomore jump that will cement her status as one to watch within the global filmmaking community.

Set in modern day France, “Grand Central” introduces us to Gary (“A Prophet’s” Tahar Rahim), a lower class 31-year-old struggling to get by. Having lost his shot at a post-high school education, Gary has jumped from a succession of manual labor jobs and service work. Now, desperate for money, he lies about his criminal record and signs on for a job with a nuclear power company that will potentially expose him to high levels of radiation.  Along with two of his friends Techerno (Johan Libéreau) and Isaac (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), he becomes part of a team of clean up workers led by power planet veterans Gilles (“The Son’s” Olivier Gourmet) and Toni (“Inglourious Basterds'” Dennis Menochet).  Gary and his two younger buddies (who appear to be discrete lovers) move into a shared home with Gilles, Toni and a few other workers. That’s when Gary meets Toni’s fiancee Karole (Lea Seydoux) who also works at the nearby plant.

Gary clearly doesn’t want to rock the boat (he constantly chides Tcherno about his behavior for instance), but immediately finds himself attracted to the sexy and bold Karole. The two are soon swept up into a passionate affair ignorant to the fact the only person on the team who hasn’t figured out it’s happening is Toni.  Meanwhile, Gary’s daily radiation readings are reaching levels that could put his employment at risk.  He soon begins a very dangerous game of hiding the card that monitors his readings on the job even if it means making himself sick in the process.  Still, the new income is making Gary and his friends much happier in the short term.  After Karole discovers she’s pregnant with Gary’s child, however, the semi-idyllic world the team has created for themselves begins to crack.

Audiences will clearly recognize Gary’s path of emotionally directed self sabotage, but for every expected moment Klotowski and co-screenwriter Gaelle Mace surprise with an unexpected turn. Toni may not the potentially jealous brute he initially seemed to be. Karole may be more loyal to Toni than you’d expect.  Gary’s immediate superior may not have his best interests in mind. And, sadly, Gary may not have the transformative arc that the film seems to building towards.

Klotowski is also aided by some fine camerawork from George Lechaptois and increasingly tense editing by Julien Lacheray. The danger from contamination whether from nuclear radiation or chemicals has been explored on screen before, but Klotwoski and her crew bring a fresh pair of eyes to the consequences of Gary’s actions.

Rahim hasn’t starred in an English-languge film since Kevin MacDonald’s unfortunate “The Eagle” and that’s too bad. His role here and in another Cannes title, Asghar Farhadi’s “Le Passe” (The Past), are just two more examples of how talented and charismatic he is on screen.  Rahim remarkably communicates most of Gary’s plight with little exposition laced dialogue, a challenge not many actors could pull off. Seydoux, who previously starred in “Epine,” gives a powerhouse performance as a woman slowing realizing her life may have no real happy ending. Among the supporting players, Nozha Khouadra deserves special praise as a team member who is exposed to extremely high radiation and is forced to shave her head to decontaminate.

Theatrical prospects for “Grand Central” are likely minor in the U.S., but hopefully a distributor will let it try to find an audience on the art house circuit.

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