PROXIMA: The Stars Are Never Far Away

In every work she has directed or has (co-)written thus far, Alice Winocour’s authorship has focused on troubled outsiders who discover their rebellious spirit. With Augustine (2012), a timid female servant questions her status after she becomes a pet project of a reputable scientist. In Mustang (2015), a group of orphaned girls struggle to escape from their strict guardians’ conservative values and adherence to tradition. And in Disorder (2015), a mentally-scarred ex-soldier battles his paranoia as he struggles for acceptance while danger lurks around him in every corner.

With Proxima (2019), Winocour has left an indelible mark on cinematic space travel, by viewing it through a feminist lens and placing more emphasis on the struggles on earth rather than the journey to the stars and beyond.

In the story, Sarah Loreau (Eva Green), a French astronaut and single mother training at the European Space Agency in Cologne, gets the opportunity of a lifetime when she is selected to join the crew of “Proxima”, a year-long mission in space. Sarah soon finds herself undergoing immense stress with the gruelling training regiment while facing overt misogyny from her colleague, Mike (Matt Dillon).

Continuously pushed to her limits as her perseverance is constantly tested, Sarah finds her dream mission to be at odds with her young daughter, Stella (Zélie Boulant), whose separation anxiety affects her mother twofold. With the mission fast approaching, Sarah is pressured into making a difficult choice and, perhaps, the unkindest cut.

New Myths

In a 1965 “Talk of the town” piece for the New Yorker titled “Beyond the Stars”, Stanley Kubrick spoke to Jeremy Bernstein about the parallels between Greek myths and space travel in his grand cosmic mystery, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). ”It occurred to us that for the Greeks the vast stretches of the sea must have had the same sort of mystery and remoteness that space has for our generation”, Kubrick said, “and that the far-flung islands Homer’s wonderful characters visited were no less remote to them that the planets our spacemen will soon be landing on are to us.”

Kubrick’s words are echoed throughout Proxima (Greek myths are further embraced upon Sarah’s mention that Stella is studying Ulysses and The Odyssey) with the notable exceptions being that this is now a woman’s opportunity for myth-making, and that Sarah’s internal journey is as emphasised as her taxing physical journey.

PROXIMA: The Stars Are Never Far Away
source: BF Distribution

Right from the word go, Sarah regales her daughter with the experience and mythology of the cosmonaut. For Stella, it’s all the stuff of adventure, folklore, and wonder, but for Sarah, it’s a multifaceted endeavour. Following in the footsteps of her heroines (and heroes) and the promise of iconography are enticing enough, but these pursuits are obstructed by the sexism she can’t defeat, the inevitable burden of motherhood that she can’t ignore and the resulting doubts and lack of confidence in her own abilities and intentions.

At its core, Proxima is a tender mother-daughter story that is at once a bittersweet fantasy and an optimistic slice of reality. However, it poses the question of whether one should be allowed to pursue their dreams and desires if they do not take their responsibilities into consideration. More troubling than most is the question of whether it is selfish to become a mother in a profession that may require you to “abandon” your child.

Winocour (who co-wrote the script with Jean-Stéphane Bron) fleshes out Stella’s character so well, that over the course of the film she is less of an obstacle (or “MacGuffin”) for Sarah and more of a fully-realised personality who has her own hopes and worries. Early on, during a launch party at the Space Agency, Stella wanders into the place’s atmospheric exhibit, which dwarfs her in a way that she enters a new world her mother never explained. She walks onto the surface of the moon, picking up its dust while she views the planet Earth from afar, which is both strangely haunting yet frightfully ironic. She understands that were her mother’s vehicle to travel too fast due to unstable thrusters, she could crash into the International Space Station instead of safely docking there.

Stella begins to grow increasingly angry with her mother for not sharing information about her work or even denying her full undivided attention, while Sarah becomes saddened by how out of the loop she is regarding her daughter’s personal life and Stella’s growing detachment (despite the fact that they do engage in video calls).

Even at the launch party, Sarah finds an antagonist in Mike, who makes rather on-the-nose cracks about how useful Sarah would be up in space because he heard that French women are great cooks. But that’s only the beginning of Mike’s presumptuous nature. At lunch, he leaves a confused Sarah alone with his wife Naomi (Nancy Tate), in a manner that suggests that they are both essentially women whose duties are to offer support to their men and provide balance to the household of their nuclear family. Sarah feels rightfully awkward and almost alien to have to feign a bland conversation about family, rather than have an intelligent conversation with “one of the boys” about her work and ambitions.

PROXIMA: The Stars Are Never Far Away
source: BF Distribution

Sarah makes it clear that she wanted to disprove the notion that space is no place for a woman. After all, men cannot monopolise the vast infinite as their own colony, nor should they feel so entitled to it that women cannot call the shots. It’s even more difficult when you take into account that classic spacesuits were exclusively built for men, which provides for an ironic metaphor of Sarah having to seamlessly fit into an otherwise bulky design.

Whether through Mike being passive-aggressive about Sarah lightening her training load, or his own videos where he says that an astronaut should not be thinking about “his” personal safety, his gender bias proves to be so toxic that despite Sarah’s resistance, her insecurities and lack of focus begin to consume her. While he may come across as a flaming misogynist, there is a strangely poignant truth to Mike’s words about “cutting the cord”. Even if he sports an overly masculine demeanour, deep down, he must be combatting his own fears in order to be brave and selfless in his line of work.

However, despite the fact that while Sarah’s ex-husband, Thomas (Lars Eldinger) may be able to assume custody of Stella while she is far away (and even that has some degree of uncertainty), Mike can safely leave his kids under his wife’s care. Mike’s ignorance is that he will never know or understand the pains and tribulations of being a mother. No man can.

To Sarah, Stella is her entire world, and the only real connection she has to earth that is worth caring about. The more distance Sarah leaves between her and her child, the harder the separation hits her and the residue bleeds into her work. The impending threat of having to be quarantined from the rest of the world days before the launch certainly doesn’t help matters.

As pointed out by Sarah’s likable fellow astronaut, Anton (Aleksey Fateev), there’s a rather sad reality for cosmonauts which is that it isn’t as hard to take off into the unknown as much as it is to return to Earth, when you are hit with the realisation that life has gone on without you. For Sarah and those who would go up to space, there is already anxiety due to the potential risk of not only dying up there in some manner but by being stranded there or even lost to float across the cosmos. With our inherent need for human contact and to not know what to expect when you’ve been away from your loved one for so long (added to the fact that numerous global events have unfolded in your absence), it truly is an important question to pose in regards how can one receive changes or readjust back in their home, to begin with.

A Hopeful Tomorrow

Proxima isn’t a film that wants to instruct the audience as to whether Sarah is a bad mother or otherwise, nor is it interested in making it clear as to what the right choice is. It’s a piece of heartfelt storytelling that poses a wide array of questions, while deliberately leaving a good deal of them unanswered. The key to its beauty is that it is about choice and what sacrifices you have to make in order to pursue what is important. It’s a complex portrait of motherhood in a difficult set of circumstances but never attempts to view it through cynical eyes.

PROXIMA: The Stars Are Never Far Away
source: BF Distribution

Over the course of her filmography, Winocour has cultivated her own cinema of ideas in trying to make sense of the darkness and lack of fairness and justice in the world around her. Her previous characters have experienced psychological damage and torment firsthand, but Sarah finds that her path is to accept the rules of the world and to engage with them despite the hardships that follow. At some point in the film, there is a significant and understandable act of rebellion that may also produce unintended consequences that we are left to wonder about long after the film ends. However, the result turns out the gesture may ask you to constantly reassess just how worthy the people you treasure really are.

While Sarah’s constant worries for her daughter are justified (the child has learning disabilities and trouble making friends at school), she understands that her potential trip to outer space is another step towards paving the way for all womankind to pursue their own ambitions (as many women have done before her). It’s for Stella to realise that she too can dream like her mother, but it’s also Sarah’s chance to prove to herself (and no one else) that every individual is capable of changing history in every world they inhabit.

Eva the Queen

While the film is well-cast, this is truly Eva Green‘s show. Ever since she commanded our attention with her breakthrough performance in The Dreamers (2003), Eva Green has proved time and time again that there are no limits to her charisma and range. Her uncanny ability to display both intense ferocity and vulnerability through her facial expressions alone is an underrated skill, and her physical presence would have guaranteed her a place among the great performers of the silent era, especially after witnessing her beautifully understated performances in Womb (2010) and The Salvation (2014).

Under Winocour’s strong direction, Green excels in subtlety and brilliantly conveys her internal plight to us whether she is trapped in the claustrophobic confines of the spinning centrifuge or in her public when more pressing matters are on her mind. She effortlessly applies a pressure cooker mechanism to her journey, as evidenced by her quiet diminishing smile when Mike belittles her to when things get a bit too overwhelming for her to stay silent. Her scenes with the brilliant Boulant range from humorous and playful to unforgettably emotional and her athletic prowess is impeccable, as she convincingly works through the stress of her intense training sessions.

With many endearing moments and scenes to spare, there is perhaps one particular scene that resonates deeply with this writer. Not long after arriving at the facility in Star City, Russia, Sarah looks at the photos of notable astronauts in the hall of fame, and with genuine reverence, acknowledges that of one of her heroines, Valentina Tereshkova, whom she gave a talk about at school. It is hard to gloss over this moment as it adds further admiration and sympathy for Sarah while also being another instance of Green’s stunning performance.

PROXIMA: The Stars Are Never Far Away
source: BF Distribution

It is here, in the absence of men, where Sarah gets to be herself and feel truly at home, showing great enthusiasm for one of her inspirations when she otherwise has to deal with the bane of gender politics and the downfall of parenting. Like anyone who has hopes of becoming like their mentors, Green allows her character to exhibit this childlike sense of hero-worship and her dream since childhood of pursuing her passion to make a difference to people’s existence much like Tereshkova did to hers. For those who are constantly disrespected, doubted, and undermined by the dismissive and jealous naysayers, it’s hard not to shed a tear at how the scene successfully encapsulates Sarah’s battles and desires.

Crafting the odyssey

Shot in real space agencies and facilities, Winocour’s level of detail and research are immeasurable, allowing us to experience the intricacies of day-to-day activities, while never having to dumb down or spoon-feed any sort of superfluous exposition. The level of insight is impeccable and the assortment of facts, knowledge, and statistics are refreshing to hear as we journey into Sarah’s passions through every given work environment.

There are almost existential questions raised when Sarah explains (to a curious Stella) how her cells will age in space and that trying to pay attention to the taste of food and the scents of people is integral to her preparation. The concept of time in space is even more intriguing when Sarah mentions that they spin so fast out there that they would witness sixteen sunsets each day, while seasons and winds are non-existent. With other things for Sarah to consider (such as mensuration), she also packs mementos and significant items with her under the condition that her “whole life must fit in a shoebox”.

Cinematographer Georges Lechaptois frames Eva Green like a mythical figure, or even a real-life super-heroine, especially when she is fitted with an exoskeleton and runs in tests of endurance. We admire and root for her when we see her in action as she undertakes mock rescue missions underwater (which make her feel like she’s out of her depth), or as she struggles with nausea and stamina while trapped in the accelerating confines of the centrifuge (in a scene made more powerful by the tense sound design). Even on Earth, Lechaptois brings out the beauty and awe of nature, from the blue skies to the enchantment of the forests and lakes as Sarah and her colleagues camp. The camera is equally attentive to the mechanical wonders that the space age has granted us, magnifying their hefty presence like the stuff from comic-book fantasies.

PROXIMA: The Stars Are Never Far Away
source: BF Distribution

More importantly, the cinematography also shows off the bond between mother and daughter, and the deep connection that they share. When there is uncertainty, the camera lets you feel the distance, not from where they are, but from how far back it is positioned. After Stella sees her mother in uniform cooling off in a lake after a training session, the camera creates a separation where the child sees her mother in her own element, like a deity to be worshipped rather than someone familiar.

As layered as the film is, the cherry on top comes in the form of the majesty of Ryuichi Sakamoto‘s cosmic score. With the magic to make a simple scene at an ice rink allow you to feel the soft, soothing sounds of snow falling in a winter wonderland, Sakamoto also brings out the best in his choir, as they emphasise the mysticism of space travel felt on earth by the presence of Sarah and the structure that will take her there. Sakamoto infuses the film with passion and mystery, making his score an iconic addition to space in cinema.

Conclusion

To look at Eva Green‘s varied career is like looking through a kaleidoscope; you’ll always find a different flavour that promises empathy and engagement regardless of the scenario. There’s simply no challenge she cannot take on and conquer.

For Winocour, this is an ambitious statement on the importance of having dreams and maintaining hope. A commentary on the lack of equal opportunity and fair treatment for women, but also a beautiful reminder that we are always stronger than others will let us know. Whatever baggage that comes with the prejudice and troubles we’ve experienced, we need to remember that deep in the unknown, we’ll all be treated the same, and we’ll be counting on each other’s support.

Have you seen Proxima? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below!

Proxima was released in the U.K. by Picturehouse Cinemas on July 31st, 2020. For all international releases, click here.


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