Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh’s feature debut opens with actual black-and-white newsreel footage of pioneering Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin arriving in Ivry-sur-Seine, a southeastern suburb of Paris, before a cheering crowd of Caucasian locals. There, in 1963, he ceremonially inaugurated a housing project that bore his name, the Cité Gagarine – a groundbreaking socialist hero literally breaking the ground for new social housing. It is a scene of working-class community spirit and great optimism for the future – yet the rest of Gagarine, shot wide and in colour, is set decades later, in the present, where yesteryear’s hopes have long since faded into decline. Local work dried up in the Seventies, and now the Cité Gagarine is a hulking edifice of neglect. The white proletarian residents have largely left, replaced by an overlooked underclass of multicultural migrants and refugees who, despite continuing the old sense of community, would for the most part rather be elsewhere.
“They should pull this shithole down!” says one of the building’s denizens, frustrated that the lifts rarely work. Indeed the end for these decrepit buildings does seem inevitable, but gentle giant Yuri (Alseni Bathily) – named after, and obsessed with, the cosmonaut Gagarin – has taken it upon himself to maintain the block as best he can, replacing lightbulbs, rewiring the circuitry and cheerily keeping things ticking over. A determined and selfless figure, he lives alone in one of the buildings, his father long dead and his mother moved elsewhere with a new partner and baby, and no longer even answering her son’s calls. Brought here from Africa when he was very young, Yuri sees the building as home – as an essential part of his identity, and a concrete source of stability and comfort against immense loneliness and loss. Although he is helped in his voluntary repair work by his best friend Houssam (Jamil McCraven) and the Roma mechanic Diana (Lyna Khoudri) who lives in an encampment nearby, and provided with materials by Gérard (Denis Lavant), Yuri cuts a solitary figure – like a man alone and adrift in space serving a greater good that many do not even notice.
When a date is set for the building’s destruction, the council’s demolition team moves in, and everybody else moves out – everybody, that is, except the squatting dealer Dali (Finnegan Oldfield) and Yuri, the latter in denial over what is coming and with nowhere left to go. Soon occupying an entire floor for himself, and reorganising it to resemble a spaceship’s interior ecosystem, Yuri – in his room with a view – fancies himself a cosmonaut preparing for a dangerous flight, and slowly loses his grip on reality.
Gagarine is a piece of magical realism, grounded to an actual, highly specific time and place, yet always seeking to soar above the mundanity of its setting into the deeper space of the imagination. Like Marwan Hamed’s The Yacoubian Building (2006), David Beton and James Nunn’s Tower Block (2012), Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise (2015), Khaled El Hagar’s Immobilia Crime Story (2019) and Ocrun Behram’s The Antenna (2019), this is a film that presents the architecture and structure of a residential building as an externalised expression (in bricks and mortar) of both its individual inhabitants and broader society. For inscribed in the multiple storeys/stories of Cité Gagarin are over half a century of French history. When Yuri becomes the sole occupant, the building’s interiors begin to morph into his escapist headspace – a cocoon-like spaceship built to shield him from the sour, sorrowful atmosphere of the world beyond.
In one sequence, some time before the Cité Gargarine has been emptied of its dwellers, Yuri designs and raises a large screen that lets all his fellow residents watch a solar eclipse above without damaging their eyes – as though at an outdoor cinema. Gagarine is itself a film of awe, inviting us, even as the world seems to be collapsing all around, to look up and see towering human achievements and celestial wonders. If the film focuses on Yuri’s dual nature as a creative, generous spirit and an abandoned, unhinged fantasist, its abstract dénouement serves more to test the viewer’s temperament. For it allows us to determine for ourselves just how joyous or depressing the ending is, and what that says about who we are, individually and collectively, on a big planet that is not always good at accommodating its inhabitants.
Any way that you read it, this is in part a story of crashing ruin. Yuri is failed – by his mother, by the state – and when he is left to his own devices, the only way out of his ever-tightening predicament comes from the unbounded vision of his mind. For in this film of socialism, space travel and spectacle, the Wildean notion that “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” – refomulated by Diana, guiding a terrified Yuri up the ladder of a tall crane, as “Don’t look down, look up” – is ultimately realised with both miraculous sublimity and melancholic gravity.
There is a delicate dynamic here, as though the film were a poem of careful symmetries and echoes, simultaneously chronicling and collapsing into one the arching trajectories of a Russian cosmonaut in space, a building in the banlieue and a young first-generation immigrant caught in gradual free fall. Here what goes up must come down, and the sweeter the lift-off, the more bitter the landing.
© Anton Bitel