With the the most recent Mars planetfall only a scant few weeks ago, it’s plain to say that humanity’s dreams of walking amidst the stars are no less powerful than they have ever been. Rich or poor, most children have dreamed of stepping into the vast seemingly-endless void of stars and wonder that surrounds our tiny planet. It’s that same hope that suffuses the grounded yet dreamlike story of Gagarine, the feature debut of co-directors Jérémy Trouilh and Fanny Liatard. Reworking their 2016 short of the same name, this film expands upon the concept, while retaining it’s punchy visual style and sense of yearning.

The strange narrative follows Youri (Alseni Bathily), a poor youth who has grown up in the Cité Gagarine, a huge tenement housing project in Parisian suburbs. The building, much like the boy, was named after Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space; and through him, his namesake feels an intrinsic connection both to the stars, and the the bricks and mortar that have sheltered him all his life. Despite passionate attempts to maintain and renovate the building it is condemned, leaving Youri with a choice, between embracing the world elsewhere or seeking sanctuary in the ever-more derelict housing block.

The film was shot almost entirely on location in the real Gagarine block, which is presently still in the process of demolition. But the film contrasts the generations of people who have lived there, by using snippets of old home movies, news reports and even the footage of the real life Gagarin attending the gala grand opening ceremony. This helps lend an air of authenticity and grounded realism to the film, which offsets the more hyper-real and almost hallucinatory moments of the film. As Victor Seguin‘s exceptional use of cinematography twists convention, and turns simple everyday images into evocations of shuttle launches, antenna arrays and spacecraft modules.

It’s a curious work, with a slightly strange pacing, as it is very much a film of two uneven halves which don’t quite fuse as perfectly as they could. The opening of the film could have served as a more conventional piece by itself as Youri, his best friend Houssam (Jamil McCraven), and local Roma engineering whiz Diana (Lyna Khoudri) struggle and fight to fix broken lift electronics, and procure new light-fittings. But the film has a lot more going on, and the latter part of the narrative in the mostly-abandoned building takes steps into the surreal that bend the laws of reality into the sci-fi framings of Youri’s astral-obsessed mind.

Ultimately it’s a film about letting go, and the meaning of stepping into the unknown. Whether the sense of community that runs through a place comes from the very stones of the walls, or the loves and losses that existed there. It touches on themes of family, immigration, poverty, but also on hope, dreams and perseverance. It may not be a perfect lift off, but it’s a touchdown which grounds itself in glory.

Screening as part of Glasgow Film Festival 2021