Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh’s remarkable drama Gagarine is one of the best films of 2022. Centered on Youri, a 17-year-old engineer who is likely on the spectrum, and his hyper-fixation on space, we witness his struggles to cope with the abandonment from his mother and the imminent destruction of his apartment complex. As the building empties out entirely, he sets out to transform his home into a spaceship, crafting an escape from the hardships of the world and finding a way to keep his building intact forever. While on this journey of keeping his home alive, he begins a relationship with Diana, a young Romani woman who figures out the way to communicate with him properly. Youri is forced to reckon between the hardships of the real world, and the fragile beauty of his dreams.
Gagarine is an incredibly intimate and compassionate film, one that never makes fun of Youri or treats him with any judgment or cruelty. As an autistic person, I related a great deal to Youri: his fixations, his struggle to cope with losing his safe space, his awkwardness in dealing with large groups of people––it all resonated a lot with me, particularly as the film reached its awe-inspiring climax.
As the film opens in U.S. theaters, I was grateful to be able to speak to the directors about their intentions, their creative process, and the beautiful film they’ve crafted together.
The Film Stage: As an autistic person, I found a lot of resonance in Youri’s fixations on creating his garden, his inability to cope with losing his home, and the view of space as the ultimate escape from his struggles. Was there any intention in making Youri neurodivergent?
Fanny Liatard: We didn’t put the word neurodivergent in the script but it was very intentional for us to create a character who is a bit fragile in our world. For us, it’s a strength. It was important for us to convey that [Youri] is amazing. He’s a dreamer, he’s a very technical person, and he’s very strong in that sense. He can build a spaceship! It’s hard for him to say kind words to his “substitute mother” since his real mother left and he’s not always someone comfortable with our world. Something that we were telling with this story is that we have to pay attention to the young people who are different. Youri’s a young guy who grew up in a territory in a project in France, which is very complicated because these young people are carrying a stigma on them.
What we were doing with the film is ensuring that Youri has to show himself to the world and show how amazing he is, what he can do, what he can dream. And if we don’t show attention to him or people like him, they will finish alone in an empty building with no one to look out for them. So what we did with the ending was show the community realizing that he’s special and working out how to save him. Something else I’ll tell you about the character: it was not easy to defend [Youri’s traits] in the writing process in terms of financing, since Youri’s almost an adult––he’s 17––but he still has the soul of a child.
He likes to dream, he dreams of space, he is very tender, very sweet. This type of character is not very easy to defend when you are preparing a film, but we are very proud to create him and to find this amazing actor, Alseni Bathily, who is just incredible. So, no, the direct intention was not to make him [neurodivergent[ specifically but we are happy that you found that meaning in him.
So much of this film is centered on the community of Youri’s apartment building. The mix of archival footage celebrating the life of the building with contemporary images creates some real sense of history. How important was it for you to establish that community outside Youri’s perspective?
Jérémy Trouilh: There is this duality in the film. We are always with one character, he is how he is because of the community around him. We discover the story of his building through his eyes and his feelings, so that’s why it’s very important to begin the movie in the collective with the rest of the inhabitants and to feel the power of this community––that is the actual family of Youri. So that’s why we go back into the past with the archive footage, focusing on this astronaut (Yuri Gagarin) that comes here as the very first images of the film say so much about the utopia it was in the 60s when it was built, how diverse it was and how beautiful the dream of living all together was. Of course, when we arrive today, the building is falling apart and some of the dreams of the past have fallen apart with the building, but of course, there are people still living here. Youri is really trying to keep these people together. His family is here, in this home, and he cannot save it by himself, the community is part of why its so special to him.
Little by little, the film gets lonelier and the only way he survives in the building without that community is to descend further into dreams. This leads to him becoming more creative, finding ways to build his own spaceship in his fantasy, but it’s crucial to bring back the other inhabitants at some point in the narrative. That’s part of the reason why the ending is ambivalent about what exactly happens to Youri. We didn’t want to make it clear since the importance is that the people come back to the apartment building, not only to say goodbye but to save Youri from a home that would become his grave. You cannot survive by yourself but for Youri, he’s up in his head, up in space, and he cannot hear anything because there’s no more air and no more life. The arc is that he feels lonely without his community and consciously chooses to go back to Earth, to be with his community even without their home. So that was the trajectory of the film from the collective, to the individual, back to the collective. There is some loneliness along the way but it ends with a declaration of community.
In an early scene when you see a group of young friends hanging out at the apartment complex, the camera makes clear that one of the teens is wearing an off-brand Chelsea FC football shirt. How crucial was the costume design for capturing what life was like for poorer French youth?
Liatard: In this scene, we shot it with local boys from the projects. The Gagarine project wasn’t used for scouting as it was already empty but we looked around the general area. We shot a part of the film in the adjacent building, which was built in a way that it should hopefully not require demolition, and the boys from there who agreed to participate brought their own clothes. We had an attention to the colors, to the realities of what they would be wearing in this situation. It was important that they didn’t come to set wearing their best clothes but I didn’t know it was Chelsea!
Trouilh: Something that I can add about the costume design is that we both love Leos Carax movies. He creates a sense of parallel reality, populated by characters who don’t really fit into our world. They always have something special which sometimes creates rejection from the outside world. His work touches on the reality of human connections, especially between those who don’t have many special relationships in their lives. We are also a fan of his movies visually, everything is thought-out, the camera movements, the lighting, and the costume design. It all works perfectly and we are very inspired by that. So for every scene, we worked very closely with our DoP, our costume designer, and the people who built the things on the set to make it coherent and to go through a logical, color language.
For instance, Youri’s reality is usually in a blue world, and the uses of red and orange are more frequent once he embraces his fantasies completely. For the collective scenes, even though we used a lot of reality, we also tried to make this reality fit into our fictional language, so we asked the extras to not wear strong colors so the audience would be more drawn to Youri’s vibrant color palette. It’s a game and a very joyful game to think through all of those little details, and to get to see them pay off on-screen. So while the football shirt was not our choice as it was just the actor’s clothes, it fits into the visual language and helps convey the sense of reality we were looking for.
The parallels between the apartment building and a space station become further amplified as the film progresses, with the production design rendering Youri’s dreams into a form of reality. What was the process in crafting the look and texture of the design?
Liatard: The first thing that we can tell you is that we were given the chance to craft this spaceship inside the empty building (the Gagarine complex) because all the inhabitants had left the place. It was amazing and very emotional to be in between the walls of all these memories, sometimes it felt like they were in the air! You could feel the absences inspired by all the people who didn’t want to leave, who wouldn’t have left if it wasn’t for the demolition, so they’ve left furniture, objects, even food in the apartments.
So we decided that Youri would build this spaceship with the things he found around him, to create the genuine feeling that he just built his ship with the materials he had at his disposal. We used objects from the neighboring apartments, as well as material from the workers who had started embarking on the demolition project. This was all due to the skills of our set designer, Marion Burger, who was amazing and analyzed a lot of images from the ISS to further the design. We discovered that the ISS used a lot of white and that there was little organization, everything was messy. This was a surprise to us because in a lot of sci-fi movies set in space, everything has a specific place, it is clean and organized which doesn’t reflect reality.
So, we tried to achieve something like that by using a lot of white on the walls and the textures. For Youri, it’s a reality and also a game. Since he’s like a child playing in the building, lots of things in his main room aren’t useful at all but they help him believe that he’s piloting his spaceship. The spaceship is not just the control center, but also the garden, the room where he controls the lights, the room where Youri watches the stars, so (Burger) had a lot of work on her hands but everything turned out amazingly. It was a game for us as well during production, and we were lucky to be able to break some walls to make bigger apartments for the sake of the design, which Youri didn’t have the capabilities of doing.
Alseni Bathily’s performance as Youri is extraordinary, managing to flawlessly convey gentleness as he both adheres to his routine and branches out romantically. How much of his performance represented natural instincts as an actor? Was the character altered to build around the natural demeanor?
Trouilh: Firstly, thank you for your kind words to Alseni, who is so important to the film and to us. We spent six months with the two casting directors to find Alseni. When you’ve been writing a story and a character for two years, it’s easy to forget that he doesn’t exist and you will never find him. So it’s finding a meeting ground between this very fictional character and the real person who’ll give something of himself to the character, and who will also transform himself to fit into the character. It’s crucial for there to be a synthesis between the two. When we met Alseni, something that didn’t fit our initial perceptions of the character was that Youri was written to look like a young teenager, but Alseni looked like a man already at 17. He was tall, athletic, could pass for 25 even though he was still in his teens. In our mind, Youri looked 14 or 15 but Alseni’s innocence, the way he talked, the smile on his face conveyed the essence of the character. It’s so important that Youri believed that his dreams could come true, that what he built would work in the sense he intended, that he could survive by himself. Alseni captured that perfectly.
In terms of what he brought to the character, I think he’s also a very good natural-born actor. He is close in many ways to Youri’s sensibilities but he is also clearly not Youri and had to go through a real process to go through emotions that he didn’t experience in his younger life. We worked together closely, as well as ensuring that he worked with a specific coach to help him with these aspects. The part required him to look deep into his emotions and express them quite strongly, emotions of fear, anger, and love. When he could find them, it became his responsibility as an actor to be able to convey them to around 100 people on set, over and over again, to be able to give them until the sequence has been completed. This was his first time acting so he had no prior experience in channeling those feelings in such a public setting. It is very difficult to be able to do that, but Alseni is very focused, a hard worker, and we saw his progress quite quickly. His drive further convinced us that he was the perfect person to work with, and we are grateful that it worked out so well.
The major romance scene, where the love interest Diana helps overcome Youri’s fear of heights, is incredibly beautiful. It was especially wonderful to see them keep their Morse Code communication, even though it started when they weren’t physically together. What was the thought process behind that method of conversation?
Liatard: It was not easy for Youri to find his own language to communicate properly with the outside world. So much of the film is about language due to the location of the building. There are so many different languages in the complex due to the diversity of its residents. It makes sense that Youri has to find his own way of communicating with the world. Diana says on the rooftop that, “When people don’t understand each other, they fight,” which is maybe a bit of an oversimplification of what’s happening in the world, but it’s true for this film. The common point between Diana and Youri is this taste for technical things, their ability to build their own worlds. They’re very strong at that and they have this in common, so for us, the way they communicate had to be in this field of technicals.
It started with Morse Code because when you are a child with a taste for adventure, I’m sure you know Morse Code and play around with it. They use it to tell each other beautiful things, using the lights which are so important to the film. Starting that exchange with Diana ensures that Youri’s communication at the end of the film can happen, when he uses the entire building’s lights to convey his SOS. So it works for both their personal relationship and the film’s trajectory.
Following up on that point: Diana’s role in the climax is so crucial. She is who the film cuts to in the midst of the initial space sequence, as well as being the person responsible for saving Youri. How important was Diana in piecing together the ending?
Trouilh: So important, you’re right. She’s the key character. She’s the only person who takes Youri out of the project, whenever he leaves the project, it’s always with Diana. Her inception comes from reality. When we discovered the Gagarine building, it was right next to a Roma community that was being exposed to threats of expulsion. The Roma community was a horizontal one designed for impermanence, the Gagarine building was a vertical one designed for relative permanence, yet both communities were experiencing the tangible threat of losing their homes. We wanted to tell the story of those two realities which didn’t really look at each other, how they could work together and by using these two young characters, Youri and Diana, we were able to depict common strength amongst the communities. Diana has a lot of similarities with Youri, she can build anything just like him, she has big dreams that drive her. For her, it’s dreaming of going to the United States instead of drifting off into space.
The major difference between the two is that she’s more connected to the real world. She has resilience that has been embedded into her through her community, since she’s been expelled from so many places throughout her life. Therefore, her home isn’t one particular building but her family, whereas Youri only truly has the building to latch onto. She is able to teach Youri to open himself up to the outside world, as he needs help in making that leap. She’s a beautiful character for us because she’s open-minded and doesn’t judge. When Youri shows her his spaceship that he’s been building by himself, she doesn’t laugh, she’s very curious about everything and how it works. This gives a comfort to Youri, that is only boosted by the love that’s growing between them, the exact love that helps save him at the end.
The fundamental moment of Gagarine is that it gives Youri his moment of peace and tranquility amongst the stars—before all the chaos with his health, which defines the final few minutes. He gets to experience his dream and the comfort that his building will exist forever somewhere in space. Would you agree that conveying Youri’s inner peace was the most important aspect of the film, or is there something else that stands out to the two of you?
Liatard: You’re right. It was the objective of our film. We were writing this film to reach the moment of Youri entering space. We were dreaming of that visually and politically, since for us, the basic idea was to bring the universe itself to this project in France. The liberation of the building from Earth was a relief to people who wanted to leave, but also a great sadness for those who wished to stay. To be forced to leave a place where you’ve had so many experiences and family memories is devastating. So it was important to go far in Youri’s dream to give both him and the community a proper goodbye, but since we didn’t have a major sci-fi budget, we had to adapt it to the building and the place to the best of our abilities.
We had to find the balance between the realism and the fantasy, but from the beginning, this final scene was what we wanted to do and relied upon special effects the most. The weightlessness process in the building was so important. We didn’t want to use a green screen and strip away the textures of his spaceship, so we had to invent systems to find a way to achieve our goal inside the complex. It was not easy to hang Youri in a 50-meter staircase, but it was quite funny for Alseni to have this experience. So much of the film is about hope and community, therefore letting Youri gain a semblance of peace even without his building, was so important for us to get right.
Trouilh: Something I can add about the ending, is that at different audience screenings, during the specific moment where Youri’s alone in the darkness, some people laugh and some people cry. There is a duality in this scene because on the one hand, there is a realization that he goes all the way through his dreams and he is floating through space, which is joyful and full of hope! But he also might be dying, there is no air and life is far away now. This is something we were looking for in the writing process, to build a story around hope but also around tragedy as well, to find the balance between those two without going too hard in either direction.
At the very end, when the community finally arrives and saves him, and he opens his eyes and smiles, I feel like there is some sadness in this moment. That’s something we like in a story, to be balanced in emotions, to make sure that things aren’t so clear, to give freedom of interpretation to the viewers. We were looking for this balance and that’s why this moment was so important for us.
So much attention is put on Yuri’s rhythms and patterns, especially as he prepares for his spaceship to take flight. How fundamental was it to capture his routines and thought processes on screen?
Trouilh: It’s true that in the movie it’s always quite exciting to be in the daily gestures of the characters, because you understand how things work. We like to write our movies with a map in our minds, a map that everyone has which guides themselves through their daily lives and movements. We had that map for Youri, one that changes over the course of the film. At the start, his map is different because of the populated building. He has his rooftop which was his place to put his tools and do his work. There’s a lot of inhabitants and we put a lot of work into the sound design, so that you could hear all the different languages coming from the different apartments. He has this custom of listening to the daily life of his neighbourhood, the young people, the joggers who come around the block, all of this contributes to his routine.
In the very first scene, Youri’s in his room taking the telescope and looking at the outside world. At this point, all of the visual language gets framed through his eyes and we don’t let go of that. His daily rhythm changes because little by little, people have to go away, and he has to invent a new routine which shows his resilience and his capability to adapt. He’s a strong young man. This leads us to another point in the movie where he’s building his spaceship, going into the workers’ area to find new things to reuse. There are some moments in the film where we take the time to focus on these rhythms, and we like that because we find the poetry in the daily mundanity. We are big fans of [Hirokazu] Kore-eda and Nobody Knows was a big point of reference for us while making this film. He takes his time giving us access to this daily routine and I always feel like it’s the best part of the movie. Hopefully, we succeeded in the same way.
Gagarine is now in limited theaters.