Playing out like a faded photograph of a bygone era on the periphery of Paris, Gagarine comes courtesy of first-time feature filmmakers Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh, who based the work on their 2015 short. That film features interviews with the residents of the Gagarine Cité housing project, which at the time was slated to be cleared out and torn down (you can hear bits of those interviews during the end credits of the feature, and some of those residents have small parts as well). But far from a documentary, Gagarine focuses on 16-year-old Youri (Alseni Bathily, in his first acting role), who lives in a unit with his younger brother in the aftermath of their mother abandoning them to live with a new boyfriend.
Youri is obsessed with the project’s namesake, cosmonaut and first man in space Yuri Gagarin, who is shown in archival footage visiting the buildings that make up Gagarine Cité, a communist-run municipality. Young Youri is fond of building things from the scraps her finds around the buildings and anything he can buy from a local junk dealer (the legendary Denis Lavant). When the residents are informed they are being moved out to tear down the projects, Youri and his brother are set to move in with their mother, but in the night, she takes the brother but leaves Youri a bit of money to live with a friend, saying her boyfriend doesn’t want both kids with them. Instead, Youri knocks out the walls between the units on the top floor and transforms them into a smaller version of a space station, complete with a functioning hydroponic garden, control panels, and a great number of cool-looking features that don’t really serve any purpose other than to resemble something that exists in space.
Youri’s flight of fancy is essentially his way of not dealing with the reality of the situation. He manages to evade the workers stripping down the building for parts, and even allows a couple of friends to hang out with him, including a young Roma girl named Diana (Lyna Khoudri, from Papicha and The French Dispatch) who lived their for a time, and a former neighbor, Dali (Finnegan Oldfield), a sometime drug dealer. The homemade starship is a great place live, but it’s temporary, and everyone seems to know this but Youri. Gagarine is a melancholy achievement that reminds us how young minds find ways to cope with situations they can’t yet deal with, and Youri’s journey is quietly devastating as the demolition approaches.
The film was shot with the assistance of the former residents just before the project’s actual destruction, and that touch of realism truly adds to the power of the production. The performances by Bathily and Khoudri are loose, and their aimless existence in Youri’s manufactured reality is sweet but also sad, as he refuses to say goodbye to the only place he has ever lived. There are sequences that cross the line into fantasy that involve Youri’s adventures in space, but those moments distract from the power of what actually happening in this small corner of Earth. It’s not enough to harm the film irreparably, but it keeps it from being all it could have been. Still, what remains is genuine, heartfelt, and insightful.
The film is now playing at the Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!