France relies on nuclear power for over 75% of its electricity supply, with 50 reactors operational throughout the country. Taking care of the reactors can be dangerous, with workers exposed to high levels of radiation. But it pays well, attracting an itinerant working class, happy to bunk up in caravans and take the risks for their next paycheck.
Our protagonist, Gary (Tahar Rahim) doesn’t have a great CV or many options, so takes an unpromising clean-up job at a nuclear reactor. Soon though, he has friends, a makeshift family, and a steady income, as well as a forbidden lust with his co-worker Karole (Léa Seydoux), and the two begin an illicit affair.
However, Gary absorbs dangerous levels of radiation and begins falsifying his radiation-exposure records to prevent his forced removal from the compound. Having to disguise their liaisons and sneak away from Karole’s fiance Toni (Denis Menochet), the pair’s fission threatens to explode. Warning bells are ringing, both literally and figuratively, but there’s nothing either want to do to stop them.
The love story is emblematic in Zlotowski’s nuclear disaster; their relationship is like radiation poisoning – a sickness that can’t be helped, has no cure, and can only be succumbed to. Perhaps it’s a little over-cooked, but in an all-consuming way that mirrors all of the characters’ lives. Their caravan park is insular; they work together, drink together in the same bar, sit around the same fires and sing together. Despite the near-misses and the accidents, the scrub-downs and shaved heads, no one leaves, because it’s their home – and everything is set to be contaminated by Gary and Karole’s mushroom cloud.
The extended metaphors come thick and fast; Gary is often seen showering and scrubbing himself, trying to get rid of all traces of radiation, and with a Lady Macbeth-style intensity, Karole too is always lingering on his skin.
Rahim plays Gary as a man who’s never expected too much from life, and now that he’s got a good thing going, he’s desperate to keep it. He seems like a good man in a grim situation, giving the impression that it would be unfair to lay the blame squarely at his feet.
Karole is oblique, we never know what she’s thinking, or what her motives are, or what she wants. Along with Gary, Toni, and the rest of their camp, she lives very much in the present. Who knows what the future will hold? In their line of work, who knows if they’ll get one?
An ominous electric-synth score fills GRAND CENTRAL with disquiet, and the power plant proves an eerie location. The characters blinker themselves to the consequences of their actions, so the audience is braced for something to go wrong. We might not know what it is, but we’ve got a feeling that something is coming.