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Gagarine review - hazy cosmic jive in a Paris banlieue | reviews, news & interviews

Gagarine review - hazy cosmic jive in a Paris banlieue

Gagarine review - hazy cosmic jive in a Paris banlieue

Cité of dreams: Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh's glowing debut feature

Listening to Gagarine: Youri (Alseni Bathily)

This is the story of a boy and a building. Sixteen-year-old Youri (newcomer Alseni Bathily) lives, with his telescope, in Cité Gagarine, a vast red-brick Sixties apartment complex in Ivry-sur-Seine, an eastern suburb of Paris governed by the French Communist party.

Named after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, it was once a showcase for the party, a modern, utopian, rent-subsidised setting for working-class supporters. But it mirrored the party’s decline and lapsed into disrepair – asbestos, rats, broken lifts, crime – and was, in reality, demolished in 2019.GagarineDirectors Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh’s extraordinarily original, glowing debut feature, filmed on the cusp of the demolition in collaboration with Gag’s inhabitants, starts with archive footage of Gagarin visiting the building in 1963 and the passionate reception he gets from residents.

Something of that idealism has seeped into Youri’s mindset (and it's refreshing to see a positive portrayal of a multicultural Paris suburb). His mother has abandoned him – she’s off with a new boyfriend and doesn’t want him around – so he channels everything into his love for the building. He wants to save it from demolition by making things work again – “If everything’s safe, they can’t demolish it, can they?” – and keeps detailed inventories of, for example, the LED and halogen lightbulbs that are needed on each floor.

It’s a hopelessly ambitious task. He and his friend Houssam (Jamil McCraven) even attempt to mend the lift, which almost comes crashing down on them, but Diana (the terrific Lyna Khoudri, about to hit screens in The French Dispatch), an enterprising young mechanic who lives in a Roma camp below Gagarine, intervenes and leads them (pictured below) to a nearby junkyard where Youri sells his mother’s jewellery for 10 kilos of electrical loot.GagarineBut most of the residents are keen to be rehoused – “on crève ici” says the graffiti – and other teens and drug-dealing gangs mock his efforts. Your attitude is all wrong, he tells them, and he gets the community together to watch the eclipse of the sun under his home-made screen, a joyful, beautifully shot scene, involving scores of residents.

But Gag is still doomed, and we see everyone leave slowly, chaotically, perhaps to lonelier places where no one knows them. Only Youri stays. We see him, in a widescreen shot, looking out at the world from his window, marooned in the cosmic vastness of the building. Even Fari (Farida Rahouadj), who has known him all his life and is a loving adult presence, providing meals and conversation, leaves Gag to live with her son in the south of France. She thinks Youri’s mother and boyfriend are going to take him in, but that doesn’t happen.

The film is an odd, sometimes awkward mix of realism and its magical flip side. It can seem a little too sweet and whimsical, and Youri almost too naïve and tentative, but it’s always unpredictable. His obsessions – stars, space travel and fixing things – collide once he’s alone in the building, marooned in an astronaut’s capsule that he creates on the seventh floor.GagarineAnd here we leave reality behind. Youri knocks through walls, salvages lift circuitry and material from deserted apartments and, watching videos of astronauts and their environments – shades of The Martian – creates a pulsating UV-lit greenhouse full of orchids, tomatoes, courgettes. His only occasional points of contact are Diana, who communicates with him at night via Morse code from a crane cockpit (don’t ask), and a strung-out dealer (Finnegan Oldfield) who starts out unimpressed but enters into the spirit of the thing, spinning a dub-style Serge Gainsbourg disc and getting them dancing. Magical, crazy and quite beautiful.

But more destruction is around the corner. Youri and Diana’s romance is nipped in the bud by the brutal, sudden razing of the Roma camp. She has to leave with the rest of her family. And Youri deteriorates, coughing in his freezing, asbestos-surrounded capsule.

He turns, in a delirious way, into a starman, able to drift weightlessly, blurred, through the corridors. Finally the day of demolition arrives. Former Gagarine dwellers, including Houssam, Fari and Diana, flock to watch it happen, holding their phones up in a tearful, torchlit ceremony. It’s a wondrous sight, a vision of a complicated community that defies categorisation. But where is Youri? His last attempt at sabotage is more wondrous still.

It's a vision of a complicated community that defies categorisation

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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