Young Youri (Alseni Bathily) is the beating heart of the otherwise terminally ill Cité Gagarine, an apartment complex located in the suburbs of Paris that was once a celebration of vital communism in France. The other Yuri, Gagarin—the Russian cosmonaut who became the first human to journey into outer space—inaugurated the building himself in 1963. At present however, no one seems to be interested in keeping the red dream alive anymore, except for the ingenious Youri—though his utmost desire is to tread into the footsteps of his near namesake. If it was not clear yet, the references in the film are plentiful yet not all too thought-provoking. Resulting out of a 2015 short, Gagarine (2020) is the feature debut of Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh, who make their characters move like chess pieces on a board whose squares are made up out of buildings that are repeatedly shown from high up, as if observed from a space ship. Someone must lose this game, we understand, but what if the characters are unaware that they are merely being played with?
Arthur Jafa has recalled of Alien (1979) that “[t]he first time I saw it, I realized that I was that alien.” In a similar vein, Youri’s body is treated as a curious object under a looking glass. His insistence on wearing only blue—additionally, simply walking past glass and lights gives his black skin an eerily blue hue—clarifies his position as the simple Pawn, he who can only move in one direction. The entire complex, the wallpaper inside, the hair of the characters, everything in Gagarine is painted in the proud blue, white and red colours of La France. Diana (Lyna Khoudri)—shrouded in red, Greek goddess of the moon, by necessity Youri’s love interest—conjures up The American Dream of Freedom, while scouting discarded materials to fix up the elevator in the building. Cité Gagarine’s death sentence is pronounced shortly after: being in an irreparable state, the building will have to be demolished. While the residents are slowly removed with and without force, Youri moves into his final square. His room in the complex is built into a spaceship that contains and feeds his steadily growing fantasy, along with his despair.
On the night of the demolition of Cité Gagarin, an event which in the meantime has been turned into entertainment for the former community, Diana runs into the complex. She realizes Youri is still in there. With dizzying camera movements, barely lit shots of his most important project now reframe it as the work of a creep, litter scattered over the floor, dust piling up everywhere. It is evident at this point he will not make it; his efforts are futile.
It simply does not suffice to frame Gagarine as a social-political indictment, because any empathy the film is trying to evoke is undermined by its own mistreatment of the characters as pawns in a game. If Gagarine holds any power, it is that it dissolves its own woke-ness through the stereotypical portrayal of what an outsider thinks that must look like. Finally, it provokes merely a feeling of frustration within the viewer, which—though it certainly is an affect of some kind—makes the emotional conquest of the film ultimately unsettling.