‘There’s no such thing as a perfect astronaut, just like there’s not such thing as a perfect mother,’ suggests Mike Shannon (Matt Dillon) in Alice Winocour’s low-key space movie. Don’t come for the aliens and the ray-guns, because Proxima never gets further than the launch pad, and that’s a deliberate design feature. Despite bursts of on-the-nose dialogue, this is a subtle character study of Sarah Loreau (Eva Green), a woman driven to excel, and the cost her family pay for her ambitions, notably daughter Stella (Zelie Boulant).
Stella is probably the right name for a star child; just in case we haven’t grasped Sarah’s obsession, her cat is called Laika. It’s clear that Sarah has the long-standing passion for space exploration that might see her succeed where many have failed; together with US candidate Shannon and a Russian counterpart, Sarah heads for Star City, a training camp run by Proxima where the final tests are to be completed before her mission to Mars.
There are more than a few plot-holes here, mostly explained away by having Proxima being decidedly low-rent when it comes to security. This French and English language feature was shot in the less-than-photogenic training facilities of the European Space Agency. But Winocour’s film finds a unique groove by focusing at length on moments which normally take up just a few scenes in male-driven stories of space travel; the farewell to the family. The relationship between Sarah and Stella is given space to develop, and the tenderness between them is at odds with the covert hostility that Sarah finds within most of the men she encounters, including Shannon. Fortunately, Sarah’s ex is willing to take on the baby-sitting duties while Sarah blasts off, but how Stella perceives her mother is one of the central areas for exploration here.
Eva Green has given striking performances while being wasted in adolescent male-fantasies like 300: Rise of an Empire and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For; for once, she gets to do more than take off her clothes and vamp. While the men around her revel in machismo and locker-room jokes, Sarah has her own personal battles, with the physical world but also with her guilt about leaving her daughter behind, and Green more than delivers a sympathetic portrait of a lady about to be fired into space.
While hardly a crowd-pleaser, Proxima is a thoughtful consideration of the specific difficulties that might provide obstacles to a woman’s success as an astronaut; it’s a focused, refined film that might bore some, but is worth sticking with. A final gallery of photographs shows mothers and children at work, and remind us that the kind of fictional battles fought in Proxima are being tackled every day in our obstinately male-skewing society.
Proxima hits UK cinemas on July 31st 2020.