Written by Alice Winocour
and Jean-Stéphane Bron
, and directed by Winocour, Proxima is the story of a mother and daughter trying to cope with impending separation. The fact that the mother is an astronaut and that the separation will result from a year-long mission to Mars is very much secondary. Instead, we're presented with something more universal and relatable - the often contradictory responsibilities one has to one's profession and one's family. At the same time, this (unapologetically feminist) film looks at the demands placed on a woman in a male-dominated field where machoism counts for something. More akin to "science fact" films such as The Right Stuff (1983)
and First Man (2018)
than recent science-fiction work such as Aniara (2018)
or Ad Astra (2019)
, Proxima is a quiet story that maps in great detail the sheer force of will it takes to get into the condition necessary to go space. And although the narrative does sag in a couple of places, and Winocour frustratingly abandons realism in a crucial scene towards the end, Proxima is brilliantly acted throughout. It certainly won't appeal to those looking for the grandiosity or existentialism of classic sci-fi, but it remains a moving examination of motherhood.
In the near future, Sarah Loreau (a superb Eva Green
) is a French astronaut based at the European Astronaut Centre (ESC) in Cologne. The only woman in the program, she lives with Stella (a stunning Zélie Boulant
), her seven-year-old daughter. Unexpectedly, Sarah is chosen as a replacement for a crew member on the Proxima mission - a year-long three-person final exploratory mission to Mars before colonisation begins. Sarah begins her training at ESC, before travelling to the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Russia, and finally to the launch site at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Alongside her are mission commander Mike Shannon (an excellent Matt Dillon
), an experienced, but smug loudmouth who publically welcomes Sarah to the team by noting that as she's a French woman, she's probably a good cook, and Anton Ocheivsky (Aleksey Fateev
), a soft-spoken Ukrainian cosmonaut. At the same time, Sarah is attempting to transition Stella into getting used to living with her father, Thomas (Lars Eidinger
), a German astrophysicist from whom Sarah is amicably separated. However, the demands of the job and the concomitant separation put a huge strain on the bond between Sarah and Stella, to the extent that Sarah starts to consider dropping out of the mission altogether.
Proxima is Winocour's third film after Augustine (2012)
and the criminally underrated Maryland (2015)
, both of which deal with intense, highly skilled men who are torn between their professional and private lives, in a similar manner to so many Michael Mann
protagonists (and antagonists). With Proxima, however, Winocour moves into uncharted territory - although the protagonist here faces a similar struggle, for the first time, that protagonist is female.
One way Winocour examines the theme of private vs. professional is her use of a recurring motif involving an ESC employee trying to get Sarah to sign papers stating whether or not she wants to be informed should anything happen to Stella. The knee-jerk reaction, of course, is that she should sign them immediately - what kind of person wouldn't want to know if their child was ill or even dead? However, as Winocour presents it, it's more complicated than that; think of Sarah's helplessness - she'd be stuck in space knowing that Stella is dead, but having to complete her assignment anyway. And so Sarah finds her attachment to Stella in conflict with her commitment to the longevity of the mission.
This motif also speaks to the feminist restructuring of a traditionally male narrative. By suggesting that a mother might choose her job over her daughter, even if only for a year, Winocour highlights that whilst it's socially acceptable for men to leave children behind (Mike speaks proudly of his young sons), it's something of a social taboo that women could do so. Another element of the film's feminine (if not necessarily feminist) quality relates to practical biological differences. For example, Sarah is told that tampons count towards her personal weight limit, whilst she has to be moulded for a smaller chair than Mike and Anton.
Aesthetically, the film adopts a realist approach which is almost documentarian in places. Clearly, Winocour and Bron did huge amounts of research, and it helps the sense of authenticity immensely that it was shot on location at the real ESC, Yuri Gagarin Centre, and Baikonur Cosmodrome; in the case of the Yuri Gagarin Centre, Proxima was the first feature film granted access to shoot in the real prophylactorium, with the crew granted the same accreditation as the on-site scientists.
In terms of problems, certainly, if you go into this expecting sci-fi, you're going to be bitterly disappointed. However, the itself makes no bones about the fact that it's the story of a mother and daughter, not a piece of science fiction, and one can only engage with it on its own terms. Another issue is that the narrative does drag in places, and ten minutes or so could have been shaved off the run time. Perhaps the biggest issue I had is that Winocour abandons her rigid adherence to realism for a sequence towards the end of the film which not only strains credibility but is tonally different from everything around it.
Proxima is a small story of a mother and her daughter set against a vast background - the macro is simply the context for the micro. Examining the pain of separation and the clash between the professional and the private from a uniquely feminist point of view, it carries a universal message that will surely speak to any mother who has wrestled with the conflict between pursuing her own dreams and the demands placed on her by having children. However, make no mistake, this is a celebration of the feminine rather than a woke attack on the masculine - men aren't the of the joke or the target of anger, they're simply not very important to the story. A space movie about a woman that takes place entirely on Earth, Proxima is another strong piece of work from a very talented director.