In the opening moments of Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh’s Gagarine, news footage from the early 1960s shows Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin opening an Ivry-sur-Seine housing estate, dedicated in his honour.
Wide-eyed boys, chasing the stars, excitedly declare that one day they would love to follow in their hero’s floating footsteps. But could a child from a project outside the périphérique ever have such an opportunity?
Amid the tremendously inventive, imaginative wonderment of this directorial duo’s debut feature – expanded from a 2015 short of the same name – there is a subtle, well-articulated indictment of the French state. From La Haine to Dheepan, this milieu, and treatment of largely minority communities housed in the Parisian banlieues, is now well known to fans of French cinema. The twist here being that Gagarine dares to looks beyond the horizon, up, up and away.
And yet, surrounded by the emptiness of widescreen space, the squared, black and white pictures of this prologue seem to confine the budding astronauts. With escape and opportunity limited, it’s a dreams vs. reality conflict that persists as we move forward in time to the present day. Youri (Alseni Bathily), he in turn named after his estate’s famous inspiration and with a love of all things intergalactic, is battling to stop its demolition. Crumbling walls, dodgy electrics, rats, and asbestos, and the inspectors are in. With what is his first ever appearance on screen, Bathily is quite extraordinary in the leading role.
Living alone after being abandoned by his mother, the plucky, optimistic young man is Gagarine’s self-appointed saviour. With the help of friends Houssam (Jamil McCraven) and Diana (Lyna Khoudri), the latter catching Youri’s eye through the lens of his telescope, and a few supplies from Denis Lavant’s scrap merchant, repairs are underway. However, after bringing the bickering community together one last time to witness an eclipse, Youri’s valiant efforts appear to have been in vain when the building is condemned. Lifelong friends and neighbours are to be dispersed across France, but Youri has nowhere to go.
With no other option than to take matters into his own hands, Youri’s imagination and intelligence run wild, transforming his living quarters into something truly out of this world. Woozy, zero gravity camera rolls both inside and out, tremendously atmospheric neon lighting and even a blue tracksuit top and trousers which resemble an astronaut’s all combine to give the impression of being far and away from reality. The Adidas stripes are a bit of a giveaway, though.
Salvaging parts here and there to create a sustainable future evidently has more than one meaning for Youri. Explosives are laid for the inevitable, but will he – and the community at large – be able to repair the damage done, and once more dream of broadening their horizons? Directed with real vision and conviction, boasting an alluring visual flare and an Interstellar-esque score, from concept, to creation and completion Gagarine is a wonder to behold.
The 2021 Glasgow Film Festival takes place between the 24 February to 7 March. You can follow CineVue’s coverage here.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63