Space is never seen first-hand in Alice Winocour’s third feature; a punishing drama about an ambitious female astronaut and mother (Eva Green) preparing for a one-year mission to mars. Instead, the filmmaker uses the destination of space to externalise Proxima’s central conflict between Sarah (Green) and Stella (Zélie Boulant), the eight-year-old daughter that she’s leaving behind.
For Sarah – who is a replacement astronaut on the exploratory mission – space is her reward for years of dedicated training and stargazing reverie. For Stella – who is shy and suffers from learning difficulties – space is the omnipotent force pulling her mother away from her and towards an uncertain fate. “Will you die before me?” she asks before they pack up their home to begin a temporary life apart.
In the weeks leading up to the mission Sarah trains vigorously at the European Space Agency while Stella stays with her supportive ex-husband (Lars Eidinger). Winocour is thorough in documenting the physical and psychological tests that Sarah undergoes, and films on a functioning space station to capture the sterile, muted environment within which she spends her transitory period.
The significance between the training and its symbolic ties with female endurance are presented without nuance; Sarah aces the centrifugal simulator as a testament to her pain threshold, while in the changing rooms she deftly dodges invasive questions from Matt Dillon’s sexist, two-dimensional colleague Mike.
The only obstacle that she can’t overpower is the rising guilt that begins to sabotage her duties as her absence from Stella becomes difficult. Winocour demands sympathy as Sarah’s slipping grasp on control is amplified in her male-centric, high-risk workplace, and the emotional toil that is shown etching deeper into her face takes Proxima into the realm of a psychological horror.
By focusing on Sarah’s unravelling, a questionable message is presented: that women can only maintain a work-life balance at great personal and professional cost. Winocour dramatically heightens Stella’s inability to adapt to her new life and limits her temperament to either detachment or pointed rebellion, which forces Sarah to breach protocol and risk her future to try to salvage the relationship that they once had.
It seems that the filmmaker wants to celebrate the unrelenting sacrifices that women force themselves to undergo to “have it all”, but isn’t willing to show a version of the story where Sarah doesn’t have to apologise for her choices.
Proxima is saved by Green’s perpetually stoic performance, the first in memory that hasn’t demanded gothic theatricality or overt sexuality from her. Her face shimmers as it reacts to a complex inner dialogue, in one scene full of bliss as she’s measured for her suit, in another brimming – though not lost to – rage as a penitent Mike questions her abilities.
Winocour’s intentions are well meaning, the film is impressively crafted and its two central performances meet the high demands set for a story so weighted in emotional destruction. If its leading woman could be shown to succeed without shame, Proxima’s lasting message would be even more empowering.
- Director: Alice Winocour
- Starring: Eva Green, Matt Dillon, Zélie Boulant
- Release date: July 31