Starring Alséni Bathily, Lyna Khoudri, Jamil McCraven, Finnegan Oldfield, Farida Rahouadj, Denis Lavant, Cesar ‘Alex’ Ciurar, Rayane Hajmessaoud, Hassan Baaziz, Salim Balthazard. Elyes Boulaïche, Fabrice Brunet, Jacques Cissoko, Mamadou Cissoko, Hassoun Dembele, Jean ‘Charle’ Ehiman, Serge Ehiman, Mahamadou Fofana, Sullivan Heng and Houssam Houat.
Screenplay by Fanny Liatard, Jérémy Trouilh and Benjamin Charbit.
Directed by Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh.
Distributed by Cohen Media Group. 97 minutes. Not Rated.
Screened at the 2021 Philadelphia Film Festival.
Fancifulness in film can be quite a balancing act.
Take the charming and often quite realistic French film Gagarine. This fictional movie is filmed around the real-life 2019 demolition of a low-income housing development in Ivry-sur-Seine, France. The building was called Cité Gagarine, named after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human to journey into outer space.
Gagarine is mostly filmed at the housing development, using many non-actors to show the warm and inclusive community which had grown up around the slightly decrepit old building. Yes, the Gagarine development was somewhat falling apart, and had problems with rats, bugs, and crime, however there was also a strong and close community that had built up there. Neighbors cared for neighbors. The community was tight and often loving.
The government’s decision to knock the place down made hundreds of families instantly homeless, giving them only a month to find someplace new to live and to move. It was not only destroying a building, but it was also destroying a community, tearing apart friendships which had lasted for decades.
So far so good as far as filmmaking goes, right? A smart and realistic look at life and poverty.
This is where the fancifulness comes in, and for much of the film it is quite effective. Though in many ways Gagarine is an ensemble piece, for the most part the main character is Youri (Alséni Bathily), a teenaged resident who has absolutely no place to go when his irresponsible mother decides not to take him in.
Youri starts squatting in the building, breaking into the site and avoiding the work crews who are systematically dismantling the building. He builds himself a little home in the bowels of the building, in honor of the astronaut for whom the development is named, he takes to looting the abandoned apartments for electronics and other detritus, essentially rigging the place to become a spaceship. Eventually a few of his old friends – including the cute girl he had a crush on (Lyna Khoudri) make the place something of a clubhouse.
In theory, at least, this is a sweet, imaginative idea. Fanciful, right?
Yet, when you think about it even a bit, this whimsy sort of falls apart. More to the point, it makes the audience worry about Youri. Does this kid really believe that this huge building is going to blast off into space just because he’s spent days and weeks throwing together some sort of impressive-looking sets? Or is he just wasting his time while the threat of the building being imploded on top of him looms dangerously?
At what point does fancy bleed over into delusion? Is he trying to save his home and himself, or is this just a very complicated way of committing suicide? Is he just biding his time? Eventually the building is coming down pretty much no matter what he does. (Yes, I’m going on the pretty safe assumption that he can’t really turn a building which takes up several city blocks into a spaceship.)
Which is kind of a shame, because there is much to love about Gagarine before it starts to come apart in the later parts. It is smart and imaginative and has a true sense of community. The acting – again by many non-actors – was mostly pretty spot on. The story of the loss of the building brings up a lot of conflicting emotions and important political and social issues.
It ends up not quite working because it crosses a line from fanciful to too fanciful. However, there are enough good parts to still make Gagarine worth watching.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2021 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 23, 2021.