An audacious feature debut shoots for the stars
Dirs. Fanny Liatard, Jérémy Trouilh. France. 2020. 97 mins.
Entirely out on its own orbit, although with one foot on realist terra firma, urban fantasy Gagarine marks an audacious feature debut for writing-directing duo Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh. As part of 2020’s Cannes Official Selection label, this dreamlike romance can certainly be deemed a flagship for the continuation of imagination and ambition in French cinema. Inspired by the real-life demolition of an apartment complex in the Paris region, it is the story of a young resident who finds himself becoming the proverbial urban spaceman.
Conviction and chutzpah, plus often dazzling execution, will chime with younger adult audiences
Gagarine’s increasingly wayward trajectory demands of its audience not just a leap of faith but a vault into the stratosphere, and its tone of naïve romanticism could rankle with more jaded viewers. Still, conviction and chutzpah, plus often dazzling execution, will chime with younger adult audiences, and the film is likely to have a similar outsider-versus-the-system appeal as 2016 Cannes hit Divines.
Expanding on the themes of their 2015 short of the same name, Gagarine sees Liatard and Trouilh returning to Cité Gagarine, the Ivry-sur-Seine housing estate built in the early 60s and named after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, whose 1963 visit to inaugurate the project is seen at the start in archive footage. The site was finally demolished in August 2019, and the directors ingeniously used this as an opportunity to film there, spinning a fiction around the lives of the residents in the cité’s last days. The hero, named after the space ace, is Youri (newcomer Alséni Bathily), a black teenager whose mother is currently absent, leaving him in the company of his young friend Houssam (Jamil McCraven) and the tender care of neighbour and surrogate parent Fari (French screen stalwart Farida Rahouadj).
With the Gagarine community facing mass eviction before the place comes down, Youri – a science wiz obsessed with space travel, but handy at low-tech methods too – keeps himself busy, and makes himself popular, by keeping the crumbling estate in good repair, fixing the failing lifts and obsolete lighting. Here he finds an ally in an equally savvy young Roma neighbour, Diana (up-and-comer Lyna Khoudri, soon to be seen in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch), who helps him obtain equipment from a local magus-like fixer (a dependably cranky cameo from Denis Lavant).
In its first half, the film offers a variant on Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, defamiliarising a mundane modern Paris by turning it into a futuristic landscape – although, rather than making their world chilly and dystopian, Liatard and Trouilh find poetry in the everyday, thanks to vividly unusual lighting, DOP Victor Seguin’s striking widescreen compositions, and magical touches such as Youri’s ability to listen to the music of corridors and lift shafts. But the imagistic ante is upped considerably in the second half as the estate is vacated, leaving Youri as a holdout tenant, along with a nervy young drug dealer (Finnegan Oldfield, a fixture of current French cinema, here solid in a nebulous, awkwardly integrated role).
It’s in this section that the film-makers’ ingenuity and imagination, together with Youri’s, go into free fall, as the young man customises his habitat into a remarkable earthbound simulation of a space station. The success of this flight of fancy owes much to Marion Burger’s superb production design, as well as a number of extremely clever visual tricks: unexpected angles which turn an apartment block into a 2001-style spacecraft, a snowy roof that suggests the lunar surface… Overall, Gagarine’s style of fantasy is somewhere between Spielbergian ‘Cinema of Wonder’ and homegrown cinéma du look; the film is also very French, in the Renoir sense, in its insistence on the values of community and local solidarity. But occasional lapses into cuteness - like the scene where Diana hails Yuri in Morse code from a distant crane at night – might prompt cynical viewers to abort mission.
The directors seem more interested in pursuing their hallucinatory vision, and evoking sense of place, than in narrative and psychology, the characters coming across a little thinly. Gagarine also suffers from otherwise affecting young lead Bathily being a touch diffident as a central presence, although Khoudri has a winningly effervescent brio. Still, whatever its flaws, no-one could accuse this very likeable debut of not shooting for the stars.
Production company: Haut et Court
International sales: Totem Films, email@example.com
Producers: Julie Billy, Carole Scotta
Screenplay: Fanny Liatard, Jérémy Trouilh, Benjamin Charbit
Cinematography: Victor Seguin
Editor: Daniel Darmon
Production design: Marion Burger
Music: Evgeny & Sacha Galperin, Amine Bouhafa
Main cast: Alséni Bathily, Lyna Khoudri, Finnegan Oldfield, Denis Lavant