Written by: Robin C. Farrell | March 31st, 2022
Gagarine (Fanny Liatard/Jérémy Trouilh, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.
Gagarine is the story of Youri (newcomer Alseni Bathily), a teenage boy growing up in a housing project just outside Paris, France, named after the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. The film opens with archival footage of the building’s inauguration in 1963, a celebration of the new and the community’s potential. Cut to present day, however, and the buildings are in acute disrepair. As an inspection draws near, Youri—along with his close friend and fellow Gagarine resident, Houssam (Jamil McCraven, A Brighter Tomorrow), and local Roma girl, Diana (Lyna Khoudri, Haute couture)—strives to bring the place up to code. He spends his own money to buy supplies and devotes every moment to repairs and daydreaming of space travel.
In their feature-film debut, directors Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh explore a myriad of themes with deft control; there’s displacement, community, and also coming of age, communication, loyalty, and, most importantly, survival. In many ways, Youri is the metaphorical captain of the collective structure of Gagarine, prepared to go down with the ship. He is played by Bathily with steadfast strength and vulnerability and, over the course of the story, it becomes painfully clear that he, like Gagarine itself, is full of every kind of potential that may or may not ever be realized. The film is riddled with all kinds of losses, characters robbed of their homes, both individual and communal, dozens of futures and livelihoods cast out into the wind by faceless officials and construction workers, their orders coming from some inaccessible, faraway place.
The cast is tremendous across the board, especially the young leads. Khoudri and McCraven are each extremely engaging from the moment you meet them. The supporting ensemble bolsters the scope of the film, as well, playing apartment residents who come across as dynamic characters that feel rich and whole, despite how brief their screen time. Bathily, at the center of the piece, is so expressive and compelling, despite his limited dialogue throughout. There’s a geometric style to the cinematography by Victor Seguin (Revenir): the shapes on screen and camera movement, in sweeping arcs, tilts, and rotations. It adds to the sense of space––both physical and astronomical––and lends a sense of shifting balance. What is fixed and what is fluid and changeable?
The film ultimately leaves you with the juxtaposition of how tragedy can drive us into desperation, isolation, and melancholy, and how it can unite a community. Don’t expect Gagarine to move at a terribly fast clip, however. Instead, settle in and let yourself drift along on the ride that’s offered here. The tone is breezy, yet grounded; broad, sweeping, yet deeply intimate and while the imagery is powerful, even lovely, the reality is often quite bleak, creating a mix of charm, gloom, and magic, each one poignant and expressed exactly when needed.