Rebecca Zlotowski's atomically charged French drama radiates unmissable intrigue
Rebecca Zlotowski’s atomically charged erotic French drama follows young lovers who work at a nuclear power station; its reactor chimneys a metaphor for their smoking passion.
Gary (Tahar Rahim) falls for his co-worker’s bride to be Karole (Lea Seydoux) when the two meet living among a group of travelling workers. Taking what amounts to danger money they expose themselves to ‘acceptable’ doses of radiation while doing arduous manual labour ‘diving’ to the bowels of the reactor as part of its decontamination teams. Accidents and the threat of exposure to radiation provide a sinister undercurrent to the emotional drama unfolding.
Algerian by descent, Tahar Rahim was mesmerising in Jacques Audiard’s award-winning 2009 prison drama A Prophet and doesn’t disappoint here. At turns both vulnerable and menacing we warm to him while the mysteries of his past are hinted at. And, following last year’s Blue is the Warmest Colour, his co-star Lea Seydoux (Grand Budapest Hotel) delivers another provocative performance as a young woman torn between her secret love and dependable fiancée Toni (Denis Menochet). The chemistry between them is palpable as Gary’s desire to stay close to Karole leads him to falsify his dose level records so he can keep working, while risking his health and life, to be near her.
Filmed at the decommissioned Zwentendorf plant in Austria the giant cooling towers overshadow the lovers as their trysts take them into the surrounding countryside. But the plant’s ominous klaxons are a recurring sonic motif reminding us of the couple’s deceit.
Zlotowski told the French & American Women Filmmakers panel about her obsession with sound and the need for contrast between the confines of the plant and the natural world surrounding it. “I’ve been listening to this musician called Colin Stetson from the opening credits. He is a saxophonist and he does everything by himself. I loved them very much, but then when it was only this in the film, I think people wanted to commit suicide after, like, 10 minutes. I wanted something very strong at the beginning that gives a feeling of the danger and the forbidden world we are driven to.”
The director’s overwrought symbolism pays off as the Geiger counter levels ramp in tune with the lovers’ passion. Cutting away to nail biting scenes of industrial jeopardy Grand Central’s final act radiates unmissable intrigue.