A boy, a building and a looming big bang: Out of these elements French directors Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh create a wondrous debut feature that derives such a crackle of authenticity from the physical reality of its setting that its starry-eyed metaphysics seem uncannily plausible too. A fiction set and shot around a real event — the August 2019 demolition of the huge Cité Gagarine, a 370-apartment housing project in Ivry-sur-Seine on the outskirts of Paris — “Gagarine” is dream built from debris, a rocketship made from rubble, and a touching tribute to stratospheric aspirations thriving against the odds in even the most maligned and marginalized communities. We may be in the suburbs, but some of us are looking at the stars.
Youri (superb newcomer Alséni Bathily) is one such stargazer. A 16-year-old Black kid with a shy smile and gift for engineering, he has lived his whole life in Gagarine. On the one hand, he’s a teenager abandoned by his mother, fending for himself in a tatty low-income apartment decorated with a cheap telescope and a wonky solar-system mobile with a tennis ball for the sun. But on the other, he’s so integral a part of Gagarine’s close-knit community, that it’s like he’s parented by the building itself, becoming its very spirit, its personification, right down to his identical namesake.
Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin appears in the archival footage that is woven in seamlessly throughout the film, visiting the newly constructed development back in 1963, just a couple of years after his historic space flight ignited the space race and the global imagination. Greeted by a cheering, confetti-scattering crowd, Gagarin is optimistically symbolic, like the high-rise stacks of the Cité itself, of a population pulling themselves skyward out of the slums that preceded it. But entropy is the way of the universe, and optimism and high hopes have a way of falling into decaying orbits, and six decades later, when Youri is pacing Gagarine’s hallways, the building is, like the reputation of its residents, in terminal decline. Demolition is threatened.
At first Youri is unfazed, maintaining that “if everything’s safe, they can’t demolish it” and working tirelessly with his best friend Houssam (Jamil McCraven from “Nocturama”) to repair faulty wiring and to replace inefficient light fittings. On the hunt for supplies, they team up with Diana (Lyna Khoudri, soon to be seen in Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch”) the pretty, capable, mechanically-minded Roma girl on whom Youri has a quiet crush and who has an in with the irascible owner of a nearby junkyard (played in a piquant cameo by Denis Lavant).
But even Youri’s boundless, inventive energy cannot get the asbestos-riddled, dust-plagued, subsiding building up to code, especially when many of its residents are actively seeking relocation. A six-month evacuation order is handed down, and gradually all Youri’s neighbors, from Houssam’s family to the gang of guys who hang out in the courtyard, to Youri’s friend and mother-figure Fari (Farida Rahouad), drift away. Somehow, beloved though he is by everybody, Youri falls through the cracks and ends up alone in the condemned building, remaking his apartment along the lines of a space capsule, complete with a thriving UV-lit indoor garden that would put Matt Damon’s Martian potato farm to shame. Eventually, he will be discovered by a drug-dealing fellow Gagarine straggler (Finnegan Oldfield) and by Diana, whose family are still encamped in the shadow of the boarded-up building. But mostly he’s as isolated as a lonely Little Prince, trying to protect what he loves from the volcanic volatility of the planet he inhabits alone.
Liatard and Trouilh manage the transitions between real and imaginary beautifully by grounding even the film’s most fanciful moments, like the romantic crane-cockpit trysts and Diana’s Morse code communiqués. Or maybe it’s more that through deployment of masterful craft, the directors create a mood in which the two can co-exist: Marion Burger’s production design is a terrific melding of concrete-and-plaster banality with found-object artistry, while Victor Seguin’s camera alternates between weightless, spaced-out dreaminess and hard-gravity handheld as easily as breathing in then breathing out. And on the soundtrack, the graceful score, a collaboration between composers Evgueni and Sacha Galperine and Amine Bouhafa, layers music-box mysticism over softly scuzzy basslines and ascending electro drones only to be interrupted occasionally, eccentrically, by a dub style remix of Serge Gainsbourg or a track from English rap outfit the Streets.
In this lovely and moving debut, the Cannes 2020 Official Selection has its first discovery and also its first potential casualty. Had the festival gone ahead as usual it’s impossible to believe that “Gagarine” would not have been one of its buzzier breakouts. As it is now, we have to trust the film will find its way into a world that could use a little more of its particular wisdom, its heartfelt reminder, as progress totters haltingly forward, that even the most notorious of places can be the repository of so much that’s good, and of the debt of care we owe one another. Because we can never tell who around us, in what Youri calls our “celestial suburbs” might be, if not quite an angel, then at least an aspiring cosmonaut.