This incredibly charming, benign story of obsession feels like the result of Werner Herzog taking on a Boys’ Own adventure tale. Actor and director Nicolas Giraud‘s labour of love is a cosmic Fitzcarraldo that will bring a wistful tear of dreams long gone to the eyes of many people who never got over their childish desire to be go into space. It’s pure escapism, but fully harnesses the magic of recaptured youth and a realising of goals on one’s own terms.

Jim (Giraud) is an aeronautic engineer with one all-encompassing ambition: to be the first amateur to pilot a rocket into space and perform a spacewalk. Surely a pipe dream one would imagine. But Jim’s put his knowledge to good use and has been building the rocket secretly for years. Now he’s enlisted a chemist to create suitable, if volatile, fuel and managed to get retired astronaut Alexandre (Mathieu Kassovitz) onboard. It’s a crazy risk, to his relationship with his family as well as his life, but having come so close to fulfilling his dream years earlier through official means, he can’t let it go.

In his second film (after 2018’s The Sun in My Eyes) Giraud brings together a stellar (pun very much intended) cast. Besides Kassovitz, Jim’s disparate, motley bunch of collaborators and supporters include Gallic stalwarts like Hélène Vincent and Hippolyte Girardot, and newer faces like Ayumi Roux who makes a big impression as a pugnacious maths whizz-kid. The heart of the tale rests on two of Jim’s relationships. The first with his grandmother Odette (Vincent), whose late husband fired young Jim’s imagination. She’s either his biggest supporter, or most guilty enabler depending on your viewpoint. And the second with Kassovitz’ Alexandre, who was living practically as a hermit after never quite adjusting to life back on Earth. A closer reading would suggest there’s a co-dependent relationship that forms between the two, one that could be potentially disastrous.

It’s interesting that The Astronaut‘s subjects of obsession and space travel chime harmoniously with two other films at GFF, Edouard Salier’s trainee astronaut sci-fi Tropic, and Maurice O’Brien’s documentary The Artist & The Wall of Death, in which another driven amateur builds his own motorcycle stunt venue. The three would make a solid thematic triple bill. The Astronaut is by some distance the most conventional narratively of the three – add a comedic twist and you’d essentially have Cool Runnings – and easily the most sentimental. But there is a Spielbergian sense of wonder that easily cuts through its more absurd elements, and if it hooks you in it’ll transfix you until its wondrous ending.

Technically, it’s hugely impressive too. It doesn’t have a huge budget, but Jim’s personal Cape Canaveral is a gorgeous piece of production design, and the visual effects team led by Emmanuelle Carlier strike the requisite sense of scale and awe when it comes to the crunch.

If one chose to scoff at The Astronaut it would be hard to argue. There’s something about it that feels naively optimistic and out of time about it. Flight of the Navigator for late Gen-Xers with a Peter Pan complex perhaps. Maybe that’s why it works; it’s zeroing in on a portion of the brain that remembers times before one’s horizons became blocked with adult responsibilities. It’s a real throwback, but one that remembers what was so successful about the adventures it recalls. There will inevitably be shaken heads and rolled eyes from several quarters. But ignore them. This is magical.

Screening as part of Glasgow Film Festival on Sun 5 and Mon 6 Mar 2023 at GFT 2