We’re dying here.
Being the first man to travel into space, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s name became a global commodity. Even a housing project within a communist municipality outside of Paris took it as its moniker and invited the hero to come by and receive the cheers of the French people gathering outside on their balconies for a look. That was 1963, however. A complex possessing 370 apartments like Cité Gagarine was destined to take a beating once infrastructure and economics collided. Its disrepair cemented an eventual demolition by 2014; its inhabitants told to evacuate with the help of rehousing programs once developers chose profits through urban renewal rather than rehabilitation. Five years later it would come crumbling down with many of its former residents looking on to bid their home farewell.
With that history as backdrop—and the complex itself as their setting—writers/directors Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh (with co-writer Benjamin Charbit) developed Gagarine into a tale of lost childhood and memorial centered upon a young man named after that same cosmonaut by immigrant parents who put down roots within its walls. Youri (Alseni Bathily) has lived here his whole life, so rumors of its demise inspire him to delay the inevitable. More than just a response steeped in nostalgia, though, this desire stems from the unfortunate reality that he has nowhere to go if it truly disappears. His father is dead. His mother is seemingly rebuilding her life without him in the arms of a new boyfriend. And he has no money to go it alone.
The plan is to play handyman and fix everything the government deems “unlivable” by the next inspection. Youri is an aspiring astronomer/mechanic who dreams of space for its ability to provide escape as well as a venue for honing self-sustainable methods of survival. With best friend Houssam (Jamil McCraven) and their new Roma acquaintance from across the road (Lyna Khoudri‘s Diana) by his side, he’s ready to trade his absentee mother’s jewelry for second-hand supplies (courtesy of Denis Lavant‘s Gérard) that might sway the opinion of whatever official is assigned their case. As many of his neighbors (including Houssam’s father) know, however, a few lightbulbs and refurbished circuit boards won’t suddenly make this aging behemoth safe. Romanticism aside, its destruction is their best chance at earning better accommodations.
While everyone in Youri’s life accepts their fate and moves on, he still refuses out of a mix of stubbornness and necessity. He can’t forgive Houssam’s dad for letting it go enough to ask to stay with them. His mother’s Turkish friend Fari (Farida Rahouadj) is moving in with family to help care for her grandchildren so there’s no room there. And his mother simply leaves a note while he’s sleeping to say she’s not ready to let him come live with her yet either. That means hiding from construction workers as they begin the demolition process. It means living quietly, avoiding local drug dealer Dali (Finnegan Oldfield)—the only other person who remains, and figuring out a way to make zero resources work. He turns to YouTube.
The second half of Gagarine becomes a wild mix of ingenuity and fantasy as Youri seemingly retreats from the harsh realities of his circumstances by burrowing deeper into the recesses of his mind. Thanks to videos from the International Space Station and his blossoming mechanical knowledge, he ultimately transforms the seventh floor of his building into a greenhouse/living quarter able to sustain him for the foreseeable future. Rather than try to sabotage the workers, he’s almost embracing the countdown to explosion as his chance to ride the fire into the atmosphere. So, when Diana stops by to visit, you can’t avoid noticing things are off. Youri acts like everything is normal—that this is just home. But we know there’s a bigger delusion in play.
It’s both the best part of the film and its most glaring issue considering the climax moves towards a whimper rather than a scream. Because while the notion of this metaphorical spaceship is beautiful on paper and lyrical in its execution, Liatard and Trouilh don’t really have anywhere to go with it besides a somewhat frustratingly open-ended denouement that can prove debilitatingly tragic or saccharinely bittersweet depending on your interpretation. Even so, however, it doesn’t hamper all the good that came before it thanks to wonderful performances and exciting production design born from having a ready-to-destroy set at their disposal. Add a subplot with Diana’s family being run out of their home too and the whole becomes a rather poignant commentary on the plight of society’s most disadvantaged.
Who pays the price of progress, after all? Cité Gagarine, like so many housing projects, was probably never meant to help its residents flourish. These places are a means for segregation and control on levels that go well beyond superficial appearances. To build it was thought to be enough. It was a cheap fix to a complex problem that only grew worse as every year progressed with little to no assistance. It takes the prospect of future gains to even return to the site, the people living there a problem in need of another cheap fix to drive them out of a place that could be better served financially without them yet again. And stuck in the middle are three smart kids nobody dares give a second glance.
Why not go down with the ship via a fantastical escape from the harsh, painful truth of isolation, betrayal, and rejection that seems to find Youri everywhere he turns? His neighbors sabotage his futile efforts to fix the apartments himself. His mother won’t pick up her phone when he calls. And his aspirations for an education that could get him to the stars seems further out of reach than those stars themselves. This is Youri’s last stand. His own bid for heroism that will likely go unnoticed just like his struggles for more and his mere existence inside a building thought to be emptied weeks previously. Despite all he’s done, what did he change? The answer is plenty since kindness reverberates. The trouble is realizing just how much.
courtesy of Cohen Media Group