When Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to venture into space, orbiting Earth on 12 April 1961, he recalled looking down from the stars and thinking, “I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it.”
In honour of this momentous achievement, the Communist Party of France began building a social housing project on the outer edges of Paris in his honour. Cité Gagarine welcomed its first residents two years later, and Gagarin was present for the grand opening.
But as the industrial powerhouses of Paris and the influence of the Communist Party faded, so too did this once thriving community. Despite Gagarin’s lofty wishes, destruction awaited. His namesake fell into disrepair and was eventually condemned, with all residents moved on – some more willing to leave than others. Demolition began in 2019.
The remarkable story of its near 60-year life and the many immigrant families who called this place home inspired filmmakers Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh. Gagarine is a haunting, magical realist fable shot in the bones of the deserted building. Expanding on their 2015 short of the same name, a twinkle of stardust illuminates a very earthly story of broken dreams centred on one young man, Youri (Alseni Bathily), determined against all the odds to save the place he called home.
Trouilh says he and Liatard knew the story had more legs than their first attempt. “It was too short to tell the backstory of why does Youri want to stay here? And the reason we found is that he has a family here that is a community of neighbours, and we wanted to take time to tell the story of this attachment, and also to go further into the science fiction.”
Youri hero-worships the spaceman for whom he is named. When the demolition workers move in, despite his best attempts to maintain and repair the building, he retreats into the spaces between its walls and ceilings. He gradually builds, from the bric-a-brac of abandoned lives, a spaceship of his own, and reality begins to blur.
These majestically staged sequences have the operatic air of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Liatard says their most significant influences were smaller in scale. “[Holy Motors director] Leos Carax was a big inspiration for us, because he has a very poetic way of looking at the world, especially at his characters,” she says. “It’s really inspiring for us, because we love to talk about people who are not so much strong in the world, and Youri is this type of character.”
Alice Rohrwacher’s gloriously form-shifting Happy as Lazzaro also informed their writing process “because Lazzaro is such a tender character and we love this type of vision of the world. So beautiful.”
Trouilh flags Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda’s detailed portrait of child abandonment, Nobody Knows, as another touchstone. “Because those kids locked down in an apartment make you think of Youri, of course. But also because Koreeda has this fantastic point of view on life, where it gives you always more details and finds poetry and the uniqueness in those small details.”
Gagarine is a film teeming with such detail, teasing out the minutiae of everyday life left behind. “We had the great luck of being able to shoot in the building when it was totally empty, one month before it was demolished,” Trouilh says. “So that gave us a huge studio where we could recreate the apartments.”
Working closely with production designer Marion Burger, they imposed a rule that Youri’s spaceship-building would have to draw upon only what they could find in this vast shell. “When people left Gagarine, because it was the end and no one else was going to go in their apartment, they left a lot of furniture and other magnificent things,” Trouilh notes. “We also imagined he could steal things from the demolition workers.”
Having actual wreckers on site saved a lot of money “because recreating a demolition team would have been complicated,” he laughs.
Victor Seguin’s cinematography, shimmering from social realism to an increasingly dreamlike reverie, was also meticulously planned to amplify the films’ themes, Trouilh says. “Everything had to be in a strange state between weightlessness and demolition. Everything is falling down, but at the same time all our characters, they look up. Especially Youri, and this helped us to develop many small details like the particles that float around him when he’s alone in the building.”
Many tenants returned to film crowd scenes, including the marking of a solar eclipse, and the tense final act as Youri appears lost in space as the countdown to a controlled explosion ticks. “When we brought 150 former inhabitants together in front of this building, some of whom had left two or three years ago, it was so emotional to see them actually meet again and say goodbye for real to their building,” Trouilh says.
Liatard adds, “I believe strongly in the energy of these places… it is such a strong image to see so many years of your life, whoosh, going into smoke so quickly.”
They also spent time in a similarly precarious Roma community located near Cité. It inspired them to add the story of a young woman, Diana, who lives in just such a camp. She’s played by Lyna Khoudri (The French Dispatch). A resourceful and resilient young woman, she shares Youri’s ability to communicate in morse code. “As a Roma girl, Diana is so used to leaving places that she’s not so traumatised,” Liatard says of Diana’s calming influence. “We wanted something epic, also, in their relationship.”
Their tender scenes together are a huge part of what makes Gagarine soar to the stars. Because even as the building falls apart, the relationships formed between the community members are remarkable.
Gagarine screened on SBS World Movies on Monday 7 February. Watch it at SBS On Demand:
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