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- This article first appeared in the October 2021 issue of Sight and Sound.
The satellite dishes and steep angles are the first clue in Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh’s gorgeous Gagarine (2020). In this magical-realist film, anchored in fact but orbiting the realm of fantasy, a high-rise housing block named after a Soviet cosmonaut metamorphoses slowly into a spacecraft. Eviction orders arrive and the tower empties, leaving only a whimsical, space-obsessed teenager (Alséni Bathily as Youri) squatting in his once-futurist home. Through his starry eyes, the block once again becomes the embodiment of the space age that was promised when its namesake inaugurated the building in 1963, just a few years before Jean-Luc Godard would reimagine Parisian architecture as a location for dystopian science fiction in Alphaville (1965). In the UK François Truffaut did the same with the Alton estate in Roehampton in Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and Stanley Kubrick with the Thamesmead estate and a Borehamwood tower-block in 1971’s A Clockwork Orange.
On screen, these high-rises briskly evoke social trauma, from the bomb damage of World War II that prompted their construction and the deprivation of the Thatcher years to, more recently, the horror of the Grenfell fire. For many filmmakers, they are foreign ground. As the late Dawn Foster wrote in the Guardian about the latter disaster: “The issue certain people have with tower blocks is not safety, but the fact that poor people live in them, that they exist at all.” Still, these flats stretch towards the stars and filmmakers have leaned into their otherworldly quality, from the novelty shock of their arrival to an increasingly controversial presence on our contemporary skyline.
Cité Gagarine is real, or it used to be. Built in the Parisian suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine in the early 1960s, it was intended to house not future space travellers but industrial workers. Across Europe, ‘streets in the sky’ aspired to rescue city-dwellers from unhealthy slums, whisk them away into the fresh air. The first high-rises appeared in Britain in the early 1950s, starting with a ten-storey tower in Harlow, Essex – a new town designed to relieve overcrowding in London caused by the Blitz. In 1963, the same year that Yuri Gagarin blessed his namesake high-rise, Joan Littlewood’s cockney melodrama Sparrows Can’t Sing configured a gleaming new council block as an interloper in the bomb-damaged landscape of east London. Charlie (James Booth), a sailor, returns home to find waste ground where his marital home once stood. His estranged wife now dwells in a high-rise block, which shoots straight upwards from the flattened land like an insult.
In Littlewood’s film, the tower is anything but homely. In her bright flat, Barbara Windsor’s Maggie enjoys fresh-minted ‘mod cons’ but lives at a remove from her friends, her husband, the sociable streets of Stepney. The tower is a silent maze of disjointed corridors and lifts. There are absurd rules (no bike-riding, no prams in the hall, no leaning on walls) and obscure language (‘portico’, ‘hieroglyphics’). It’s a place where people are stratified and abandoned: “They put all the old ones at the top, you know, to kill ‘em off.”
In British cinema, tower blocks swiftly became a shorthand for the confines of poverty, from Meantime (Mike Leigh, 1983), to Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996). Now, as older high-rises are being demolished, the tower-block movie has changed again, recalling its eerie first appearances on screen but with a shift of emphasis: nostalgia for a lost future. An ersatz replacement for home and hearth has become a citadel to be defended – the fortress-like dimensions of multi-storey architecture setting the stage for epic battles.
In a contemporary, realist setting, 2012’s Tower Block (James Nunn and Ronnie Thompson) depicted the remaining residents of a condemned London high-rise evading a sniper. But science fiction is never far away. Dystopian futures gave British filmmakers the opportunity to wage vertical war in The Raid (Gareth Evans, 2011) and Dredd (Pete Travis, 2012). In a fictional 1970s, Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise (2015) adapted J.G. Ballard’s vision of a towering block with its own luxury amenities and inbuilt class structure (shades of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, 1927), a civilisation cut off from the outside and destined to collapse in on itself, crashing into brutality and insanity.
Straddling both realism and science fiction while quietly referencing Ballard, Joe Cornish’s hilarious Attack the Block (2011) gave John Boyega and Jodie Whittaker roles to warm up for their future sci-fi franchises, here defending south London flats from alien invaders. Cornish filmed in several locations, including the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle, since demolished, like the Cité Gagarine. He’ll have to find a new set of towers for the much-anticipated sequel.
There’s a well-illuminated walkway between Attack the Block and Gagarine, but the director who has best explored the majesty and precarity of high-rise homes is Andrea Arnold, who grew up on a council estate in Dartford. Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009), both shot in now-demolished high-rises, exploit the vertigo of living at altitude. In Red Road, Kate Dickie plays a security guard with an eerie, flickering CCTV vantage point of a Glasgow estate – a view she exploits to exact horrific revenge. In one invigorating scene the architecture itself heightens emotions: Stevie (Martin Compston) opens his window suddenly to bring in a rush of bracing air (“the wind up here’s fucking brilliant”), only to push his girlfriend through the opening in a violent jest, reducing her to tears. In Fish Tank, Mia (Katie Jarvis) is isolated from her friends and family, but takes refuge in dancing, drunk, in front of the window of a deserted flat, a stage that allows her to see but not be seen.
Like Youri in Gagarine, Mia finds a connection in a nearby Traveller camp, among a group who make their own homes. A high-rise can be a home, but not if it can be taken away. If the next wave of tower-block cinema grapples with the legacy of Grenfell and the struggle to rehouse its residents, this theme will be felt more deeply yet. The truly alienating aspect of the tower block is no longer its teetering height but its sudden disappearance, as abrupt as its uncanny arrival, thanks to a shift in housing policy, a tragedy or the landing of a UFO.
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