Gagarine review – close encounters of the banlieue kind

This mesmerising debut about a teenager looking to fix up his Paris estate passes up the usual angry social-realism in favour of something more celestial

We are used to seeing Paris’s tough banlieues filmed with a kind of blistering verité. Think of La Haine and Ladj Ly’s recent Les Misérables – angry films about the pressure cooker caused by poverty, police racism, underfunding and official neglect. Now with their mesmerising debut, Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh bring something different to the suburbs. The pair filmed this poetic movie, with its streak of magical realism, in Cité Gagarine, a redbrick housing estate on the outskirts of Paris, just before it was demolished in 2019. Built in 1961, it was named after Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. Which might explain why this is a movie looking up at the stars.

It opens with actual footage of Gagarin visiting in the early 60s, mobbed by a cheering crowd, showered in a confetti of rose petals. The residents beam with optimism; the estate gleams. Fast forward 50 or so years, and the place is beyond repair, with cracks in the walls, asbestos, rat infestation, and dealers in the corridors. But Gagarine is the only home that Youri (Alséni Bathily) has known; he’s a bright, space-obsessed 16-year-old with a gorgeously shy smile. And like many kids on the estate, he’s from an immigrant family. These days it’s just him and his mum, who is mostly off with her new boyfriend; but Youri is surrounded by neighbours who keep an eye on him. The film is very good at showing the community of the Gagarine without downplaying its problems. “We’re angry, but we’re happy here,” says one man to the council.

Youri has an idealistic plan to fix up the building: get the lifts working, replace lightbulbs in communal areas. Then the authorities won’t be able demolish it, will they? He sets to work with his best friend Houssam (Jamil McCraven) and Diana (Lyna Khoudri), a girl from the local Roma community. Of course, that’s not how building regs work. And when the demolition crew moves in, Youri stays put, hiding in the flat, transforming it into a mini spaceship, complete with a UV-lit greenhouse. It’s here that the storytelling takes on a gravity-defying lightness with a couple of moments that bring a Close Encounters of the Third Kind sense of wonder to the movie.

• Gagarine is released on 24 September in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema.

Contributor

Cath Clarke

The GuardianTramp

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