Director: Alice Winocour
Cast: Eva Green, Zelie Boulant, Matt Dillon
Proxima is about an astronaut in space without being an astronaut movie or an outer-space movie. Sarah, a mother of an eight-year-old girl, just happens to be an astronaut on the verge of a year-long-stint at the international space station, and this film is about her personal space. This is perhaps the most fundamental definition of space: What does such an important champion of science really think about? Buttons and trajectories and complicated launch sequences? Or…her daughter’s fractured hand? Her new school? Her math grades and her dyslexia?
For eons, we’ve seen stories about heroes who are presented as parents inspired to undertake momentous space missions. For ages, we’ve seen films about single working women and their struggle to balance their job with family life. Proxima shines a dull, unglamorous but necessary light on a single parent who must struggle with the cost of intergalactic greatness. It’s cinematic enough that she’s a lady in a field full of self-congratulatory jocks. The Matt Dillon character heading the mission even welcomes her by cracking a French-cooking joke. Many sensitive and timely films can be made about the ordinary misogyny faced by an extraordinary female professional who dreams of transcending her planet.
It’s not the orchestra that viewers are used to hearing. It’s disturbingly relatable and modest, this image of an otherworldly person dealing with earthly issues
But Sarah’s anxiety about her first space mission and its training obstacles is more than offset by her separation anxiety. You sense that she is already guilty about making little Stella go through the trauma of a divorce. Much of her trepidation stems from the fact that she already knows how imperfect a mother she is. Her ambition demands a sacrifice at the altar of young parenthood. And she is unable to cut the cord. The only thing that worries this French astronaut at a Russian training camp is a little girl who, to earn her attention, has to reach for the stars.
In that sense, Alice Winocaur’s Proxima is the film that we never see – the lull before the storm, the indie before the masala, the private letters before the public newspaper headlines, the domestic buildup before the global battle. It’s not the story that directors tend to prioritize. It’s not the orchestra that viewers are used to hearing. It’s disturbingly relatable and modest, this image of an otherworldly person dealing with earthly issues. Taking her kid to work, counting on an ex-partner, defying a psychologist, breaking protocol in a desperate scene – Sarah could very well be an exotic dancer or struggling actress in LA, and we’d be none the wiser. She goes through a brutal preparation camp, strapped with the burden of having to repel gender stereotypes to earn her last-minute place in a vehicle of history.
Sarah is able to romanticize the sound of rain, birds, forests and the texture of tears (“they become a blob on your cheek in zero gravity”) without seeming too pretentious
It’s to the filmmaker’s credit that we never quite forget how beautiful Eva Green – even as a gut-busting astronaut – can be. Winocaur doesn’t let her film shy away from the actress’ striking presence, almost deliberately compensating for the blue-collar physicality of an “unaesthetic” space movie. Her features, which work against her in Russia, contribute to the academic hostility against her position. She uses this to subvert our expectations of good-looking people like Matt Dillon and Eva Green to develop sexual chemistry in high-pressure conditions. I like the way their relationship goes from testy to edgy to sibling-like – a graph that reveals how Stella, no matter how distant and how small, is always on her mother’s mind.
Stella’s mother isn’t a hero for her because she isn’t really conditioned to look at ladies as modern-day heroes. It’s only when she sees a rocket – the rocket – while sitting on the shoulders of her stooped father that she truly realizes the significance of who gave birth to her. And why she is suffering. She finally sees her mother’s cape. Zelie Boulant is splendid as the girl who is torn between needing her mother and wanting an idol.
The tricks not only elevate the style of the film, they also inform the mother-daughter longing, lending words and imagery to a feeling that is difficult to express in terms of dramatic storytelling
The narrative devices tie up well with the cinema of a space mission. Sarah writes letters to her daughter throughout her training, as if she were writing a lyrical diary. That she is about to leave Earth for a long time gives her – and the film – the license to strip the planet down to its most basic form. She is able to romanticize the sound of rain, birds, forests and the texture of tears (“they become a blob on your cheek in zero gravity”) without seeming too pretentious. She is in a position to resort to the bareboned language of a child in order to communicate her own headspace. She can vlog about her experiences in an effort to accentuate her fame. All these tricks not only elevate the style of the film, they also inform the mother-daughter longing, lending words and imagery to a feeling that is difficult to express in terms of dramatic storytelling.
Just when we think they’re over the hump, an experienced astronaut remarks, “We prepare for leaving, but coming back is the hardest part.” Sarah treats this as a harmless anecdote, until he adds, “You realize that life goes on without you.” It’s a simple but devastating thought. You go to Mars and nothing changes? Her face falls. The countdown is only hours away, but the real movie is months away. Probably years away.
There’s one scene that best encapsulates this fractured proximity of Proxima. When Sarah is in quarantine on the eve of her departure, Stella is brought in to say goodbye. A glass wall separates them. They can’t hear each other through it. They must back up a few steps and sit at a table with a microphone. The speakers will aid them. In this shot, Sarah looks like a tongue-tied celebrity addressing the world at a press conference. Stella is still the little girl who doesn’t know why the mic makes her sound louder than she is. This could be their future. This is their future. The tragedy is that, for now, the sky is their limit. The comeback can wait. The space will only increase.