Gagarine: Dreams of space in the rubble of modernity

Film review: In a Parisian banlieue a teenager seeks to recreate a vanished dream

Teenager Alséni Bathily plays Youri, in a star-making turn, in Gagarine

Film Title: Gagarine

Director: Fanny Liatard, Jérémy Trouilh

Starring: Alseni Bathily, Lyna Khoudri, Jamil McCraven, Finnegan Oldfield, Denis Lavant

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 98 min

Fri, Oct 1, 2021, 05:00

   

Gagarine, a magic-realist lament for modern architecture from co-directors Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh, opens with archive footage of the cosmonaut who inspired the title. It’s 1963 and Yuri Gagarin, the first man to return from space, visits the Parisian borough named in his honour.

For decades, Cité Gagarine – a utopian housing project in Ivry-sur-Seine built by the Communist Party – housed working-class locals and immigrants from France’s many colonies. The project’s demolition began in 2019 and required more than a year, a collapse that makes for a dramatic backdrop.

Against all odds, Youri (teenager Alséni Bathily, in a star-making turn), who was also named for the cosmonaut, fights to save his block. A 16-year-old who loves space, Youri is looked after by the wider community now that his mum is spending too much time with her new boyfriend.

Alséni Bathily as Youri
Alséni Bathily as Youri

As his neighbours slowly leave on foot of a six-month evacuation order, Youri remains. Never mind the building codes: Gagarine is his home. Working with his friend Houssam (Jamil McCraven) and Diana (Lyna Khoudri), a local Roma girl and mechanical whizz, Youri has a plan that is almost as idealistic as the building around him.

If he can just get the lifts working and the broken light fittings over landings and halls replaced, and if he can score some goods from the local junkyard owner (Denis Lavant), Gagarine will be restored to its former glory. “If everything’s safe,” says Youri, “they can’t demolish it.”

Long after the demolition crew moves in, Youri stays hidden, planting a UV-greenhouse not unlike a spaceship. He wanders the empty corridors and former communal spaces, not unlike an extraterrestrial explorer.

Just as Youri fashions outsider art – or survivalist dreams – from his doomed banlieue, Liatard and Trouilh craft an imaginative debut feature from the rubble.

Streaming and on limited release from October 1st