The Cité Gagarine was a real, 370 apartment, housing project, built in the early ’60s and named for and opened by the first man in space; Yuri Gagarin. Almost 60 years later, Gagarine finds it in dilapidated shape, condemned to demolition, its residents given their marching orders. Teenage Youri (Alseni Bathily) doesn’t want to leave. When his alternative, staying with his mother and her new boyfriend, doesn’t happen, Youri hides from the crew preparing the demolition, exploring his interest in space and constructing a kind of space station within the deserted building.
Though the story is, of course, fictional— an expansion of Liatard and Trouilh’s 2015 short— Gagarine was shot at the real apartments just prior to their actual demolition, giving the film an immersive realism that helps establish the space before Youri begins to alter it. The film shrinks the timescale from decision to demolition, making it seem as though the residents were moved largely on a single day and that the building came down just months later. This has the effect of intensifying the feeling, also seen in the brutal way Youri ’s Roma girlfriend Diana (Lyna Khoudri) and her family are evicted, that spaces where the population is majority minority are seen first as low priority for upkeep and subsequently as disposable. These ideas play out affectingly in the background, but for the most part Gagarine is more concerned with being a largely realist drama, first about Youri’s efforts to, on a shoestring, repair the problems with the Gagarine and then about both his hidden space station and his sweetly burgeoning relationship with Diana.
As the film goes on though, Liatard and Trouilh fold in more elements of fantasy, of Youri’s visions of his space station as opposed to the reality which he has (impressively) cobbled together from elements scrounged from the apartments and from junk.
The first part of the film creates, in short order, a sense of community, not in the sense of everyone holding hands and singing together, but a real community with frictions, cliques, and some unexpected friendships. It’s quite an achievement that we see this richness in characters who have very little screentime, but it helps bring home a sense of loss. From the beginning, we see that Youri’s mother has essentially abandoned him, but the rest of the residents leaving is a different and perhaps just as difficult blow.
The central dynamics; Youri and his relationships with Diana and his friend Houssam (Jamil McCraven) are very well drawn. Youri and Diana connect over the fact they both know Morse code, and a sequence in the middle of the film where they spend the day together, ending in the crane that Diana sometimes sleeps in, has Before Sunrise vibes about it. The fractures in Youri and Houssam’s friendship are equally well played, the tension that arises between them felt powerfully without any words being exchanged. All three of the leading performances are excellent, but it’s the debuting Alseni Bathily who ends up impressing most, with a performance that becomes increasingly internalised as the film goes on and Youri is more and more alone.
Directors Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh start out with a style that is essentially social realist; ground level observation of the mundane day to day, but as Youri pulls himself into the world of his space station, they allow magic realism that slow fades into pure fantasy by the end. Because the progression is slow and logical, driven by character, the tone remains consistent even as some of the imagery shifts (the realist side of the film does, however, remain a strong throughline, especially in the emotional storytelling). For the first act, it seems engaging, but perhaps not hugely eventful, and something we’ve seen before. Around the half hour mark though, Gagarine begins to evolve inventively, wrapping us up in this place, its people and the issue of their displacement, telling a story that deftly mixes the real and the imagined to emotionally affecting ends.