Gagarine | Review
Favorites of the Moon: Liatard and Trouilh Stargaze Through the Rubble of Resistance
Yuri (Alseni Bathily) seems to be the glue holding his community together in the sprawling apartment complex Cite Gagarine, a monolithic structure anointed in the early 1960s but in a virtual state of disrepair on the outskirts of Paris, a home to the displaced and disenfranchised. When the building fails its latest inspection, Yuri, so named for the cosmonaut whose name defines the complex, at first remains optimistic. But as the six-month evacuation order crawls to its last day, it becomes clear that despite Yuri’s affections for his friends and neighbors he is destined to fall through the cracks upon learning his mother won’t be able to let him move into her new abode with her boyfriend.
Liatard and Trouilh open their film with footage from Yuri Gagarine’s 1963 inauguration of the Cite complex, which had 370 apartments. Their narrative brings to mind Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green Homes, demolished in 2011 but representative of the city (and nation’s) evolutions of immigrant and racial discord—of minor note but an interesting point of comparison is how Cabrini-Green took its name from a nun who serviced the poor and a president of the American Federation of Labor, while France’s equivalent, at least in tone, set its bright hopes on not just the future but cross-cultural identity.
Gagarine is anchored by a quietly moving, increasingly fraught performance by Alseni Bathily, an enterprising yet somewhat introverted teen basically abandoned by his mother and then the housing system when his tenuous support system is removed. Perhaps we can’t quite conceive of his desperation during the detrimental housing inspection which would mark the complex for demolition, but in retrospect it’s the devastating removal of his one and only support beam. He is, after all, the namesake of the building, and its destruction is a metaphor for his own origins literally and figuratively.
Although Denis Lavant makes a cameo as an irascible junkyard dealer, the cast is mostly comprised of new or up-and-coming French talents. Liatard and Trouilh borrow two of Bonello’s cast members from Nocturama (2016), both who provide a sort of sustenance for Yuri, at first his best friend Houssam (Jamil McCraven), whose own father’s actions have something to do with the failed inspection, and the drug dealer Dali (Finnegan Oldfield) who is also left behind in the cavernous complex.
Potential salvation arrives in the developing relationship with Diana (Lyna Khoudri, recent breakout from Papicha, 2019), with whom he communicates from afar with Morse code. A well-crafted mystical odyssey both emotionally poignant and aesthetically profound, Gagarine blends the dilapidated reality of its crumbling complex with the quiet possibilities of Yuri’s space fantasies, set to a moody, atmospheric score.
Reviewed on June 24th – Cannes 2020 Label – THE FIRST FEATURES Section. 98 Mins.