Dir: Alice Winocour. Starring: Eva Green, Zélie Boulant, Matt Dillon, Aleksey Fateev, Lars Eidinger, Sandra Hüller. 12A cert, 107 mins.
An astronaut constantly rehearses their own death. They lie in their spacesuits at the bottom of swimming pools, play-acting unconsciousness so their colleagues can practice rescue missions. They imagine the air being slowly sucked from their capsules, suffocation a single broken valve away. It’s a strange, existential kind of life – even more so for Sarah (Eva Green), whose young daughter Stella (Zélie Boulant-Lemesle) sits at home, contemplating what might happen if mummy went to space and never returned.
Alice Winocour’s Proxima is a poignant tribute to a mother’s resilience. We follow the lengthy lead-up to Sarah’s first mission – a year-long stint on the International Space Station, as part of final preparations for the first human expedition to Mars. Sarah’s journey isn’t the one history will remember but, by nature, each venture beyond Earth’s atmosphere becomes its own cosmic odyssey.
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Stella is sent to live with her father (Lars Eidinger) in Cologne – he and Sarah have separated, but remain amicable. Sarah must travel to Moscow’s Star City for training, then on to Baikonur in Kazakhstan, where the rocket launch is set to take place. Winocour shot these scenes on location in real training facilities, and Georges Lechaptois’s cinematography captures them with icy formality – though there’s always a touch of poeticism to be found amongst the bare, white walls and coils of electric wires.
Winocour, in a script co-written with Jean-Stéphane Bron, maps out the universal pain of the goodbye. A few delicate last words give way to a sudden, violent emptiness. Green, usually seen in operatic, mystic roles, here grounds her usual intensity in very human frailties. Her hands clench, turning her knuckles white. The great, liquid pools of her eyes turn hollow.
In Proxima, there are more philosophical concerns to be dealt with, too – the kind traditionally reserved for narratives about stoic, space-venturing dads (First Man and Ad Astra included). Not only must Sarah contend with physical separation, but with the emotional gulf that threatens to form between her and her daughter. She reads books upside down, back to front, in anticipation of the inverting effects of zero gravity. “I’m becoming a space person,” she writes to Stella. It’s clear she may not come back the same woman. How could anyone? Seeing all of humanity contained on a single rock, suspended in infinite darkness, has a tendency to change one’s perspective on life.
Unlike cinema’s space dads, Sarah is further burdened with the daily toils of the patriarchal workplace. Proxima is smart to let this theme bubble away beneath the surface. This isn’t an empowerment tale, per se – just the reality of women’s experiences. Sexism here is complex. Mike (Matt Dillon), Sarah’s crewmate, casually accuses her of being a “space tourist” and cracks jokes about how French women are all good at cooking, but is equally capable of showing tenderness and generosity. And yet, Sarah must work twice as hard as the men to prove she’s earned her place and to overcome the stigma of being a single mother.
Winocour doesn’t let the audience intrude on Sarah and Stella’s final exchange. It ends, instead, on a series of portraits of real-life female astronauts and their children, spanning across the decades. Here, they are celebrated both as scientific pioneers and as mothers, without the two ever coming into conflict. In Proxima, the intimate and the epic beat with the same heart.