The film tells the story of Gary (Tahar Rahim), a young man who has dropped out of formal education and who takes on a job with two friends, Tcherno (Johan Libéreau) and Isaac (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), at a nuclear power plant in the Rhône-Alpes region of France.
In part the movie is a work of social realism, as is arguably made clear by the choice of Olivier Gourmet to play Gilles, the man who takes Gary and friends under his wing and who trains them in the job at hand: the maintenance of the plant and the disposal of radioactive waste. For, Gourmet is a stalwart of films by the Dardenne brothers; indeed, an eagle eye might have spotted him in the similar (if less pleasant) foreman role in their latest film, Deux jours, une nuit/Two Days, One Night (Belgium/France/Italy, 2014).
The social realism is also in evidence via the use of locations, the mumbling acting styles, and the film’s concern with outlining the dangers of working in a nuclear power plant. Getting the so-called radioactive ‘dose’ is not simply something that could happen as part of this job; it is something that inevitably will happen at some point. Furthermore, Zlotowski takes care to detail the petty corruptions that take place almost daily: cheating one’s radiation exposure measurements, stealing equipment from the plant, turning a blind eye to ‘malpractice.’
However, while it is a fascinating insight into the life inside a nuclear power plant (Homer Simpson this is not), the film also takes on a poetic, as opposed to social realist, dimension, both through its love story and, as I shall discuss below, through its imagery.
Gary falls for Karole (Léa Seydoux), who is engaged to be married to Gilles’ friend, colleague and neighbour, Toni (Denis Ménochet). However, while Karole and Toni’s relationship has little wrong with it, she cannot but be attracted – somewhat animalistically – to Gary. An affair begins and, avoiding spoilers, they are on a timeline towards disaster – even if the Karole/Toni relationship is signalled as ‘unnatural’ in some respects both by Toni’s inability to have children – an inability brought on by his job at the nuclear plant – and, in a more meta-cinematic fashion, by the casting of Ménochet as Toni. For Ménochet played Seydoux’s father in Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, USA/Germany, 2009). To play now her fiancé seems a step towards the unnatural.
As an itinerant worker, Gary seems to be updated version of a different Toni – the one played by Charles Blavette in Jean Renoir’s early social realist classic, Toni (France, 1935). Indeed, where Renoir is concerned not just with realism but also with poetry via symbolism, so, too, is director Zlotowski in this her second feature film. Perhaps this is also implied by the fact that Zlotowski’s film ends with a shot of Toni (and not of Gary or Karole), a shot that I shall discuss below.
At present, however, let me explain what I mean by the film’s symbolism via what seems to be another – at least implicit – reference point to Zlotowski, namely the work of nineteenth century French naturalist novelist, Émile Zola. In a letter to fellow writer Henri Céard, Zola writes:
Nous mentons tous plus ou moins, mais quelle est la mécanique et la mentalité de notre mensonge ? Or – c’est ici que je m’abuse peut-être – je crois encore que je mens pour mon compte dans le sens de la vérité. J’ai l’hypertrophie du détail vrai, le saut dans les étoiles sur le tremplin de l’observation exacte. La vérité monte d’un coup d’aile jusqu’au symbole.
A (relatively loose) translation of this might read as follows:
Basically, we [writers] all lie at some point, but what are the mechanisms and the mentality behind this lying? Now, perhaps I am exaggerating here, but I still think that I personally lie in order to achieve a sense of truth. I gorge on true detail, and I leap to the stars on the trampoline that is exact observation. The truth suddenly takes wing and flies up into the realm of the symbol.
What more evidence need we have of Zola’s use of symbolism than the ending of his great novel, Germinal (1885)? This book, which details at length the lives of French miners, ends with the image of grass growing, pushing up from underground – a symbolic insistence, then, that the miners will themselves emerge from the ground and become once again a part of nature.
And it is in particular in her juxtaposition of nature and the man-made that Zlotowski’s film, like Zola’s novel, becomes most poetic, most symbolic, in spite of its otherwise naturalistic/social realist approach. This is of course signalled in that most Zola-esque of fashions, in the afore-mentioned animal attraction that takes place between Karole and Gary. However, it is also there in the imagery that we see.
Water, for example, plays a key role in the film. Gary demonstrates great thirst early on when he drinks all of Gilles’ water (this is a man who is ‘thirsty’ for success, who has large appetites and so on), while Gary is also associated with the lake next to which the characters live in their trailers. Water is what is used to hose down the characters when they have been exposed too much to radiation; here we see it explicitly take on a ‘cleansing’ role in opposition to the unnatural life in the nuclear power plant. Finally, torrential rain will of course also play a key role in conveying to us the ‘natural’ attraction that exists between Karole and Gary.
At one point early on, Karole compares the sudden loss of vision and the sense of confusion that is raw desire to the exposure to radiation that is what the characters call a ‘dose.’ Desire, it seems, is similar to radiation – but one is healthy and (re)productive, while the other is noxious and damaging.
The greenery of the countryside – the fields where Karole and Gary repeatedly walk and make love – is also juxtaposed with the grey of the cooling towers that we see looming almost consistently in the background. In the framing and the colour scheme, then, we have a clear comparison between nature and modernity – an almost painterly eye that sees (for want of better examples) the rurality of Sir John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (1851-1852) combined with the industrial urban landscape of The Pond (1950) by L.S. Lowry – with the human remaining also a key component to both images, and to Zlotowski’s.
The soundscape also ‘symbolises’ the possibility of the plant’s threatening nature: its ominous siren calls tell us if someone has had an accident in the plant – with the obligatory and ‘unnatural’ loss of hair that this inevitably entails. What is more, the haunting score by Rob (Robin Coudert) also plays an important part in the film, itself signalling a leap into the heavens as it creates a sense of foreboding throughout.
Finally, there is also a strong emphasis on shoes in the film: Gary carries his shoes around early on in a bar scene, while changing shoes takes place every day at work as the crew steps into the zone where they must wear their protective uniforms.
I am not certain of the ‘meaning’ of this – but it perhaps signals the constraint of the human in clothing. This may seem a bit far-fetched, but the French for shoe is chaussure, which comes from the Latin calx (foot) and calcāre (to tread, but also to crush). Not only does the shoe itself tread and crush, but the shoe might also do this to the foot. The word inculcate, meaning to tread down/stamp in/force upon, comes from the same root: Gary will not be downtrodden.
I have only offered a brief sketch here of Zlotowski’s film, but it is a rich and engaging film, featuring performances from a handful of French cinema’s finest talents, telling a fascinating story not just about the perils of nuclear power, but also about the impossibility for human nature to be extinguished. Nonsensical desire will always dictate our lives more than empirical science can possibly hope to achieve.
As mentioned, the film ends with a fascinating double exposure of Toni, of all characters, on an electronic rodeo bull – the same bull that we have seen Gary ride and defeat near the start of the film. Mysterious and beautiful, it suggests that perhaps even impotent Toni will not be vanquished. It is not that he conquers desire – in the form of a bull; it is that he conquers the mechanisation of desire – in the form of a mechanical bull. The doubling of his image through the double exposure/superimposition suggests multiplication, too, as he is set out twice against a black background: not only will Toni not go away, but there will be of him, more people like him.
Like a ray of light in the darkness, Toni has become the star in the heavens – into which the film has leapt via precise observation. Perhaps if Zola were alive to make films today, this would be the sort of movie that he’d produce.