In the early 1960s, the Communist Party of France funded the construction of the Cité Gagarine housing project in the Parisian suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine. On a practical level, the building was intended to house low-income Parisians & immigrant communities in its near-400 units. On a more symbolic level, it was intended as a monument to the power & possibility of Communist ideology in France. To that end, Cité Gagarine’s opening was commemorated with the attendance of the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin—the first human to reach outer space—who also inspired its namesake. To me, Gagarin is only significant as the muse for a kickass PJ Harvey song (simply titled “Yuri G“), but a half-century ago he was a much more inspiring symbol of the endless possibilities of a Communist Future, in France and beyond.
That dream apparently ended in the late 2010s, when Cité Gagarine was demolished for not keeping up with modern public health & safety standards in the decades since its construction. As the Communist Party of France lost its financial & political sway, no other governmental power stepped in to support the Cité Gagarine residents. First-time directors Fanny Liatard & Jérémy Trouilh are obviously fascinated by the political symbolism of Cité Gagarine’s history & demolition. Their 2015 short Gagarine was inspired by interviews with the real-life residents of the housing project in the months before its condemnation, and they’ve since expanded the project into a debut feature of the same name. It’s a small, intimate drama with huge, Paris-wide political implications about both the current state of European politics and what communal solidarity & resources have been lost from more hopeful eras of the past.
Newcomer Alensi Bathily stars as the aptly named Youri, the last true believer of the Yuri Gagarine dream. As Cité Gagarine is being forcibly evacuated, the teenage Youri has nowhere to turn, so he decides to squat until the building is physically destroyed. A lifelong astronautical obsessive, he converts the abandoned building into a kind of D.I.Y. spaceship, recruiting as many fellow teens as he can for his naive mission into the uncertain beyond (including The French Dispatch‘s Lyna Khoudri as an amused love interest). What little community is left in the aftermath of Cité Gagarine’s closure is only held together by Youri’s stubbornness. He inspires fellow tenants with solar eclipse watch parties and analog retro-futurist refurbishments to his living space, but it’s just not enough to overcome the cold, bureaucratic indifference of the modern world. No matter how much beauty or community Youri finds in his home, recent history has already decided his mission is doomed.
Gagarine maintains a striking balance between grounded, pessimistic realism and the magical thinking of a young mind still awed by the possibilities of life. It searches for a far-out middle ground between a twee version of Silent Running and a distant galaxy where the Dardenne brothers occasionally lighten up. As often as the film slips into heart-soaring escapism, it’s also balanced by a wealth of archival footage from Cité Gagarine’s history that makes it clear that fantasies of a bigger, better life were always part of its design (including footage of Yuri Gagarine’s attendance at the building’s inauguration). Gagarine has had a slow international roll-out since it first premiered at Cannes in 2020, which speaks to its relative anonymity as a low-budget coming-of-age indie drama, but there is something special in its heart and its historical context that merits more attention than it’s ever likely to get.