Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh’s feature debut, Gagarine, is a beautifully told story about shattered dreams with magical realism attached to it.
Although space travel and exploration are both an exciting and scary thing to think about and see, it is also a signal of hope and desire. Everyone has thought about what else may be out there or the various wonders of deep space. In the expansive universe that is cinema, the aspect of the galaxy has been used, on occasions, as a metaphor for displacement, unhappiness, and solitude (like Claire Denis’ High Life, Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and Trumbull’s Silent Running). In Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh’s feature directorial debut, Gagarine, space exploration brings magical realism into the grounded story of desires, family, and lost souls amidst a breakdown of multiple sorts.
Named after the pilot and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who became the first human to journey into outer space in the Vostok 1 capsule, this film transpires during the destruction of the housing project Cite Gagarine in August of 2019. It is weird and fascinating that in 2015, the directors did a short of the same name where they interviewed the residents at the request of the architects who were exploring the possibility of one day taking down the place. Four years later, and at the correct time, this film was born–expanding on the themes that the short dealt with.
The movie centers around a young kid named Yuri (Alséni Bathily), who has lived his entire life in Gagarin Towers on the outskirts of Paris. He has always dreamt of being an astronaut. He’s always trying to look up into the sky and imagine what it would be like to see the world from orbit. Yuri treats his home as his own starship; he’s constantly repairing the place up (selling his mother’s gold jewelry to get equipment and pieces to fix the elevator, amongst other things) and helping his neighbors.
However, when there are plans to demolish the cosmonaut named Towers, he, together with his friends Diana (Lyna Khoudri) and Houssam (Jamil McCraven), joins the resistance – embarking on a mission to save what’s theirs. Even though it has moments of young love and bicycle voyages through the streets of Paris, Gagarine has a melancholic atmosphere. The gruesome reverberations of reality hit hard in Liatard and Trouilh’s debut, even if it’s intertwined with galactic ecstasy of magic realism. It all has to do with the fears of the youth and what will become of them as their environment crumbles. As many stories have explored, the kids might look for an escape to a better life–one where they can freely roam without any hassle or care in the world.
Yuri’s mother basically left him to live with her new boyfriend, so he’s been handling everything all by himself since then. At least there is a sense of camaraderie coming from his friends and neighbors. With a humanistic nature, the directors show us in the scenes of frustration as a community the longing actuality of gentrification. That’s when the melancholy and “space-age” realism come about. Scenes of floating through the stairs of the household complex, another reminiscent of James Gray’s Ad Astra, and beautiful color schematics shot gracefully by cinematographer Victor Seguin. The story has a bracing nature, one where it allows adhering to Yuri’s universe. Still, the structure of Gagarin Towers feels haunted by the past and left to rot by the present (the walls are boarded, a lot of things don’t work, the inside color scheme is filled with grays, and the corridors are always empty). In a place where the community is united, on occasions, it seems like there isn’t a single soul in it due to how gloomy its atmosphere feels. In addition, there are overt metaphors of aspirations versus the sheer reality of life as well as sentiments of truth and romance.
The slight problem that Gagarine has is that it doesn’t give the right amount of time to embrace and capture the feelings of its most important and sentimental moments. They are effective as it is, yet with more time to let the picture breathe, it would have caused a broader impact. And although its vision is clear, I wished its ending was a bit more ambiguous – an ending that was more for the viewer to analyze instead of knowing the real fate of things. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful and heartfelt debut piece that wraps itself into an allegory of sorts – a love story not between two people, but a person and his place of birth and the dreams and yearning one has. It is a little overbearing when it reaches its last act. Still, it has great and charismatic performances, especially Alséni Bathily and Lyna Khoudri (also having a cameo from legend Denis Lavant), atmospheric moments of bliss, and handled with care. It’s not the film I expected it to be, yet the way it manages its topics and themes overall makes it a fascinating watch.
Gagarine will open in select US theaters on Friday, April 1, 2022. The film is currently available to watch on Digital in the UK & Ireland, Australia, and select countries.