Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 06, 2021 4:30 pm 
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Takes the ordinary and turns it into wonders

Thanks in part to cinematographer Victor Seguin, Gagarin is a film that astonishes, and it starts with a commonplace of contemporary French movies: the big, doomed ghetto "cité" of the banlieue. Here, thanks to the focus on the big soulful black adolescent (Alseni Bathely) called Yuri for the cosmonaut, Gagarin, for whom the building complex is also named, the focus changes. Instead of being about hoodlums and gang wars, this is about the cité itself, and the varied community it contains. Eventually we enter into the imagination of Yuri, who has dreamed of being a cosmonaut, and for a while, the whole movie takes flight into a sad but glorious fantasy.

Directors Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Troulh are weaving wonders in a very cinematic way here. At first, as we meet some of the personalities connected with Yuri, he tries to use his precocious engineering skills to improve the wiring and lighting and bring the building complex up to code so there is no excuse to demolish it. But while the public spaces pass inspection, the flats don't, and eventually everyone is evacuated, except Yuri. Gone is Houssam (Jamil McCraven), once Yuri's constant sidekick. His mother has withdrawn her promise to take him in with her new man and younger child. Diana (Lyna Khoudri), who communicates with Yuri in a secret universal language (Morse), also remains for a while and a romance blooms.

Yuri's secret habitation lodged in the building is like a space ship. The filmmakers go to town creating a dreamy world of improvised technology, including fantastic electrical gadgets and a greenhouse growing vegetables. But everyone is gone now. Diana's Roma community's local squat is destroyed and she must go off with them. Even the rough, not so tough drug dealer Dali (Finnegan Oldfield) runs off after getting beaten by thugs. The pungent cameo of iconic French star Denis Lavant (who deals in wiring and spare parts) is a fading memory.

This is about Yuri, but always also about Gagarin, the building. Hence the demolition is an event former inhabitants gather to witness. Only Diana knows Yuri is still there and must be saved
As the Variety review points out, this movie was woven out of a real event, the August 2019 demolition of the huge Cité Gagarine, a 370-apartment housing project in Ivry-sur-Seine on the outskirts of Paris that interestingly was built in 1961-63 by the Communist French section of the Workers International. As he wrote, this is a "wondrous" debut feature the physical reality of whose setting gives it such a "crackle of authenticity" that its "starry-eyed metaphysics" seem "uncannily plausible" as well. Jonathan Romney's Screen Daily review predicts this movie's "conviction and chutzpah, plus often dazzling execution, will chime with younger adult audiences." This is a touching, beautiful, and thoroughly original film about community, ingenuity, and dreams. The red brick Cité Gagarine is gone, but the film's quietly vibrant young star Alseni Bathely will doubtless live on to grace many more features.

Gagarine/Gagarin, 95 mins., was a Cannes Marché selection Jun. 2020. Its many other international festival appearances included Berlin, Zurich, Hamburg, Moscow, Cologne, Bordeaux, Athens and Busan. Now a Cohen Media release. Screened for this review as part of the all virtual New York-based Rende-Vous with French Cinema Mar.6, 2021.

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