Wednesday 13 October 2021

The urban spaceman: "Gagarine"

Once again, the French cinema finds an entirely new angle on the inner city. An expansion on a 2015 short of the same name, Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh's
Gagarine proceeds from an inspired juxtaposition: it sets memories of Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut and image of stratospherically high aspiration, against the latter-day reality of the Cité Gagarine, the Ivry-sur-Seine housing estate that was named for the astronaut in 1963 (by the then-ascendant Communist Party) and subsequently run down by a half-century of municipal neglect. It's there we find our teenage hero, also called Yuri (Alseni Bathily), a mournfully eccentric amateur astronomer of African descent who lives apparently alone in one of the estate's flats, sleeping under a homemade diorama of the solar system and with a telescope at his window that allows him to keep an eye on his fellow residents. In the absence of any parental oversight, Yuri devotes himself to pottering about the estate's corridors, repairing whatever he can in an vain attempt to stave off the developers' wrecking ball. (One early improvement: replacing a lift's flickering fluorescents with disco lights.) The old place retains traces of its former futurism: during the opening credits, the pointed corner of one of its roofs pierces the frame like the 2001 monolith. Yet its days are numbered. As his neighbours are gradually rehoused, Yuri finds himself broadly as alone as his Soviet namesake, with only a fellow dreamer, Diana (Lyra Khoudri), the Tereshkova to his Gagarin, swinging by to provide sporadic company. A Romany girl who's secured some kind of future for herself as a trainee operator on the cranes knocking down such relics as Yuri's home, she confesses a desire to get out and live the life she really wants elsewhere. The question is whether an estate such as this is a launchpad or merely a scrapyard, and one of Liatard and Trouilh's triumphs is to set us to thinking seriously about a question residents of estates like the Gagarine must ponder every day.

That's partly down to the unique way these filmmakers set about visualising their characters' inner lives. We're travelling through similar territory to last year's British success Rocks: like that film's eponymous heroine, Yuri finds himself abandoned by wayward guardians who bequeath him with only a sorry note of leavetaking and a scattering of currency. Yet the British film was tethered to some degree by social-realist tradition, and our expectations of what a film about the inner city should look like. Liatard and Trouilh take an extra imaginative leap in establishing the estate as its own galaxy and setting out to explore its furthest reaches; they film Yuri's flat, with its put-through parallel walls, as Ridley Scott and Alfonso Cuarón filmed intergalactic space stations. With the camera circling, in a mirror of the zero-G footage Yuri watches at night, the second half delights in Marion Burger's production design and some charmingly handturned effects as Yuri transforms his immediate environment into an airlock in a last-ditch bid to keep the world below at bay. Yet it's still out there, in the sound of the construction workers' hammers and boots getting closer by the scene, and in the sight of Diana's caravan site being brutally dismantled. That's the impressive balance Liatard and Trouilh strike here. Gagarine is, bottom line, a movie about displacement and dispossession, the destruction of a community (we see the real Gagarine being torn down in the closing credits), all of which prevents it from toppling over into Michel Gondry-style whimsy. But even as it keeps one foot firmly on the ground, it never stops looking up, and its flights of fancy beam back big, bold, ever-resonant images. Curled up inside a tent in the capsule this most practical of urban spacemen constructs for himself, Yuri really could be a 21st century starchild: floating in the ether of modern multicultural France, barely seen, yet no less full of potential.

Gagarine is now playing in selected London cinemas, and available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema.

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