Alice Winocour’s profile of a French astronaut’s preparation for a journey to the International Space Station centres Eva Green’s superb performance of a mother torn between family and personal achievement. The production design and visual style of the film are refreshingly earth-bound and create a tangible emotional connection to the characters, even if Winocour’s symbolic moments lack the subtlety that would elevate the film itself to the stars.
Green leads as Sarah Loreau, who is chosen to replace another astronaut on a forthcoming year-long mission to the ISS. The primary carer for her young daughter, Stella (Zélie Boulant), she must prepare herself and her daughter emotionally for the vast distance that will separate them, as well as the gruelling physical preparation she must undergo. A joint mission that she prepares for (mostly) in Russia, she joins a crew of the American astronaut Mike (Matt Dillon) and Russian cosmonaut Anton (Aleksey Fateev).
PROXIMA has a very utilitarian presentation of the preparation for space exploration, unlike many films that share similar plot elements. Sarah is introduced taking part in exercises with robotic exoskeleton-type apparatus, having medical examinations, and only glimpsing fragments of her at first until we see her on a vertical treadmill. The film’s tenor has much more in common with European social dramas than a plot synopsis might imply. The desaturated colour palette gets across that this is a vocation for Sarah, lacking the typical romanticism and starry-eyed existentialism.
The female focus of the film and Eva Green’s performance are the chief strengths augmenting this muted presentation. At every point, the small additional challenges highlight the additional barriers she must face. Each alone seems a minor irritation, but they add up to an unseemly imbalance: the casual misogyny of Mike; the judgement she faces for ‘abandoning’ her daughter the men seemingly do not; the use of part of her weight allowance for sanitary products.
Throughout all of these, Eva Green navigates the winding emotional road Sarah traverses with aplomb. The performance is quite muted, just as the film requires, but presents the delicate boundary between psychological fragility and strength in a nuanced and understated way: Sarah will very quickly accelerate into other emotional states before returning to her professional baseline.
Just as those with more earth-bound vocations, Sarah’s work presents challenges to her family life. Stella’s father lives elsewhere in Germany, so Sarah cares for her alone most of the time. The impending mission – which will take several months of preparation, let alone the trip itself – represents a massive upheaval in the lives of both Sarah and Stella.
In representing this emotional strife visually, the film is undoubtedly a lot more derivative feeling in the execution of its metaphors. As Sarah starts to strain under her workload and the hurt from the separation, a wound festers and will not heal. When in quarantine, she can only communicate through glass walls which create short physical distance but vast emotional distance. Stella wanders on to a fake lunar display, gazing at Earth as a distant and unknowable place. It is not uncommon for space and science fiction films to present such things, but although PROXIMA communicates them clearly, it feels much more pedestrian than the other elements. Having said all this, it culminates in an ending which – while stretching credulity, not for the first time – is the perfect emotional catharsis to satisfyingly conclude the character arcs.
In the end, PROXIMA isn’t quite next to the stars, but there are enough unique elements, including a beautiful central performance, to forgive its more thudding metaphors.