Writers: Benjamin Charbit, Fanny Liatard, and Jérémy Trouilh
Directors: Fanny Liatard, and Jérémy Trouilh
This beautiful and dreamlike examination of a housing estate in Paris, named after Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, is surely a contender for the best film of the year. As plans hasten to demolish the tower blocks, full of asbestos and rats, Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh’s film tells the story of one of its inhabitants, also called Yuri, who dreams of following in his namesake’s footsteps.
Gagarine begins with vintage footage, of the real Gagarin, shorter than expected, opening the estate in 1963. Families pour out of apartment windows eager to get a glimpse of the Russian cosmonaut. This was a time when heroes were real, and when housing estates, based on the principles of Brutalism, were seen as utopian projects, a stride towards modernity. The optimism is clear here, even in black and white.
But then the film turns to the present day with dawn cutting angles over the lift shafts and corners of the estate, each block functionally named after a letter. Against a crystal blue sky, Gagarine still looks as futuristic as it must have done in the 1960s, and the music, moody synthesizers, sounds suitably sci-fi. We move inside, and meet our 21st century hero, Yuri, lounging on his bed in a shot that seems like an oil painting. Yuri’s blue t-shirt complements the turquoise-striped pillow behind his head, and tacked up on the wall beside him are photographs that tremble with the blues of outer space. It’s such a stirring beginning, that it’s almost a disappointment when the film’s story kicks in.
But every shot in this film about those who live on the margins is a masterpiece, every colour – and Gagarine is full of colour – is a fierce display of life. These kinds of housing projects were built with the intention to foster communities, and while they often failed and became dangerous, derelict places where no one wanted to live, these estates also became people’s homes. As we’ve seen in London in recent years when these buildings are knocked down for the area’s regeneration, the working class residents always lose out and are moved to houses miles away from their old community.
Teenager Yuri believes that if he can maintain the building in some way it won’t be knocked down. The council don’t seem to be interested in keeping the elevators working or the corridors lit and so Yuri must do it himself, helped by his friends Houssam and Diana. Yuri has to stay on at Gagarine, even if his neighbours are begging to move away, as he has nowhere else to go. His mother has left him, to start a family somewhere else. Gagarine is his only home.
With the story established in this way, it seems as if the film is going to be a feel-good movie about a community led by Yuri and his friends that comes together to fight bureaucracy and pull off a victory for the forgotten people of Paris. Fortunately, Gagarine is not that film, and no amount of fixing electrics can save the estate from being earmarked for destruction. As the demolition men move in and the residents move out, the film edges into fantasy.
This move away from social realism makes sure that the film is very different from last year’s Les Misérables, Ladj Ly’s debut about a similar multicultural estate in Paris. Instead, it has echoes of films from the last century such as My Beautiful Laundrette and Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, with the latter’s star Denis Lavant having a minor role in Gagarine, his cameo an astounding act of belief in Liatard and Trouilh’s talents.
As the main star, however, Alensi Bathily is incredible, and completely authentic as the awkward and nerdy teenager. When he begins a romantic relationship with Diana, his face lights up like the sky after the eclipse that all the residents watch from under a tent. It’s a confident performance, and it’s matched by Lyna Khoudri as Diana, as a streetwise teenager who revels in the safety of Yuri’s company. When she helps Yuri conquer his fear of heights, her face is full of patient understanding, and together Bathily and Khoudri make their partnership one based on equality. Their friend Houssam is played by Jamil McCraven, and his mischievous nature is the perfect foil for Yuri’s ambitions. These are three names to look out for in the future.
It’s such a shame that cinemas have still not opened, as the film, with its unending series of painterly shots, should be watched on the big screen. Liatard and Trouilh, along with fellow writer Benjamin Charbit, have created a new myth, a cross between Icarus and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Gagarine, like the cosmonaut, is out of this world.
The Glasgow Film Festival runs here from 24 February until 7 March 2021