Director: Alice Winocour
Stars: Eva Green, Matt Dillon, Zélie Boulant
With some trepidation today I took my first steps back into a cinema in nearly five months. A humid Saturday afternoon was cooled with an uneasy but pleasantly air-conditioned matinee. From behind my mask I was able to catch-up with familiar members of staff (behind the now all-too-familiar plexi-glass) and return to a sanctuary that I, like everyone else, have had to forgo these past months.
The UK ruling on mandatory face masks in cinemas comes into effect next week (at the time of writing), but I elected to keep mine on anyway, in spite of there being only one other person in attendance (sat comfortably far from me). This was a test-run, as it were, to see how I feel in these new conditions. Please, if you’re thinking of doing the same, remember that cinema employees up and down the country are just as apprehensive about all this as you. Be considerate, follow the rules, and help them.
I’m happy to report that, cumbersome as PPE might feel at times, I forgot I even had a mask on for over half the film. A testament to Alice Winocour’s absorbing new drama about a female astronaut preparing for her first trip into space. Proxima opens, appropriately enough, with heavy breathing behind visors, as training for a proposed Mars mission commences. We’re introduced to Sarah Loreau (Eva Green); a French woman joining an international endeavour that gives Winocour’s film it’s title. Her cohorts will be an arrogant and antagonistic American, Mike Shannon (Matt Dillon), and a more passive Russian male, Anton Ocheivsky (Aleksey Fateev). A crew without borders might tilt you toward preparing for a film about unity and togetherness, but Proxima is far more often about divisions. Female astronauts are still relatively rare, and Proxima examines the demands and frustrations for a woman in this high pressure and exceedingly specific environment.
While her male counterparts are steely loners with few if any family ties, Sarah is a mother, and the weighted emotional attachment of her daughter, Stella (Zélie Boulant), is seen from the off as a handicap or millstone around her neck. Not by Sarah herself, but rather by her male counterparts. Sarah is separated from Stella’s father Thomas (Lars Eidinger) – also a member of the space program – so there’s division there also. What’s more – and this will ultimately become the fulcrum of the piece – she will have to confront and overcome the separation anxiety that comes with her impending mission. In a best-case scenario she won’t see Stella for several years. In worst-case, they may never see one another again. This tension underpins a very human drama taking place in the arena of high-concept sci-fi.
There’s a gratifying, workmanlike feel to Winocour’s presentation of space exploration. Without exactly making the task at hand humdrum, this is more hands-on and practical than the typical depiction of such proceedings. Winocour’s film is pleasingly free of the immaculate sterility favoured by more clinical (and masculine) portrayals of space programs. That it is a manned mission to Mars is the only real tip toward ‘sci-fi’ here. Instead this is a grounded observation of a inherently fascinating working environment, and one woman’s reaction to it.
The balance is quite delicate. It isn’t a hand-wringing exercise. It doesn’t hector the viewer. Mike vocalises (either off-hand or with striking directness) the ingrained sexism in the workplace as Eva Green’s performance and Winocour’s direction urge us to consider how many of these unpleasant behaviours are scenes in our own day-to-day. From outspoken rivalries to more passive-aggressive condescension and ‘special treatment’. We’re also treated to a rather lovely depiction of the bond between a mother and daughter. Green is great. After a run of thankless roles in Hollywood fare, it’s refreshing to find her working in French again, and in smaller, more dexterously orchestrated productions. It’s a world that suits her well. And she has quite a talented young co-star in Boulant, too.
As the mission approaches and Sarah goes into quarantine, Winocour accidentally taps into very real emotions about all of our experiences through lockdown, and how familial connections have been abruptly reconfigured. Sarah and Stella find themselves separated by plexi-glass, too. And while her parents may worry that she’s not excelling in her academic studies, the final act of Proxima deftly shows us a child enamoured by the achievements of her parents, particularly the mother she holds so dear.
Sarah is an incredibly capable woman. Fit, intelligent, serious. Winocour frames her as such throughout, with only the cumbersome doubt of her colleagues throwing shade on this assumption. Proxima may take place in a not-too-distant future, but said future is still a man’s world. Though there’s some credible weariness to the additional expectations Sarah is forced to endure, the end result is a proud and pleasingly feminist take on a field – and genre – often dominated by male posturing.
Being back in a cinema space was a strange, almost overwhelming experience. But divorced from the unusual circumstances of this re-acquaintance, it was a boon to have material this good to sink into.