Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Bathily is superb, approaching his role with confidence but capturing the freshness and naivety essential to the character."

On 12 April, 1961, Klushino-born pilot Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to travel into space. Despite all the rivalries of the cold war, he would become an inspiration for people all around the world. Set in a real life French housing project which bears his name, Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh's magical realist fable follows a teenage boy named Youri (played by newcomer Alseni Bathily) who is cared for by the wider community after his troubled mother abandons him. When the estate is scheduled to be demolished, Youri doesn't want to leave, but scavenges among the empty apartments, corridors and elevator shafts, building his own capsule in an attempt to escape from a world which seems to have no place for him.

A modern fairy tale set among the poor and outcast on the fringes of Parisian society, Gagarine balances its strange beauty with scenes showing the casual brutality of the state and of people whose more conventional lives virtually preclude them from noticing it. Some of the building's residents have lived there for decades; Youri has grown up on their stories of survival, of flight from dangerous places. The young people thrive like weeds in ruined spaces, making a playground out of what is broken and certifiably dangerous, as young people everywhere are wont to do. Some don't actually live in the building but simply see it as a cool place to hang out, like Roma girl Diana (Lyna Khoudri) with whom Youri forms a flirtatious but unspecified bond. When apart, Diana and Youri communicate through Morse code, inviting viewers to wonder about the lonely lights that flash across myriad cities after dark.

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The film opens with footage from Yuri Gagarin's spaceflight and archive clips related to it are scattered through the film like bright flashes in Youri's memory, guiding him, but as time goes on and the date of the building's final explosive destruction inevitably approaches, the joy we might find in his dreaming is pitted against a recognition that his mental state might keep him from leaving even when the countdown begins. Audio footage from mission control gradually begins to break through into the main narrative when he's alone. His increasingly elaborate capsule with its working hydroponic vegetable garden is a testament to the overlooked brilliance to be found in outsider art (and in the work of production designer Marion Burger), emphasising the potential of this neglected boy and the community he represents, but that brilliance could easily lead to his death.

With camerawork by Victor Seguin which mirrors this complex narrative by alternately making us feel as if we're walking or floating, Gagarine shifts perspectives with ease. There's a consistent, grounded narrative running throughout, yet it sometimes feels more like a dream. Bathily is superb, approaching his role with confidence but capturing the freshness and naivety essential to the character. There's an innocence about him which recalls Yuri Gagarin, wide-eyed at the wonder of it all. Will he find his way back to Earth?

It takes courage to attempt a film like this and a certain genius to pull it off. Liatard and Trouilh have created something special.

Reviewed on: 03 Mar 2021
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Youri fights to save his home - which is also named after Yuri Gagarin - from demolition.

Director: Fanny Liatard, Jérémy Trouilh

Writer: Benjamin Charbit, Fanny Liatard

Starring: Alseni Bathily, Lyna Khoudri, Jamil McCraven, Farida Rahouadj

Year: 2020

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: France

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