Proxima is, in the broadest sense, about a mission to Mars. But neither the mission nor Mars itself are the source of the film’s tantalizingly muted energy; we have Eva Green to thank for much of that. She plays Sarah Loreau, an astronaut in training at the European Space Agency whose life takes a long-hoped-for but nevertheless unexpected turn when she finally gets her chance to go to space. Sarah’s a last-minute addition to a team headed to the red planet. She’s been training for this for years.
This science-fiction–inflected drama by Alice Winocour, however, is more interested in the things one cannot train for: in this case, the delicate line Sarah must now walk between being a divorced mother/caretaker for her daughter, Stella (Zélie Boulant-Lemesle), and the fulfillment of her own dreams. Stella, whose very name means star, has a Skywatcher telescope of her own, powerful enough to see to Mars from her bedroom. She’s inquisitive, quiet, and bad at math, which bodes poorly for future prospects following in her mother’s footsteps someday. Still, the young woman is incredibly sensitive to what’s happening — and to what’s about to happen. She wonders aloud, for example, whether she or her mother will die first, a question gripped with awareness of the gap that will now grow between mother and daughter — one defined not only by distance, but by time.
Sarah, you see, will be gone for over a year in earth time. In the meantime, Stella and her cat, Laika, will stay with the girl’s father, Thomas (Lars Eidinger), a fellow space head who’s committed to staying on the ground. The tensions start once Mom moves to Moscow’s Star City to begin her intensive mission training, i.e. that familiarly grueling regimen of vomit comets and impossible underwater missions. In Sarah’s case, there’s the additionally difficult double-bind of being the sole woman among so many men and of missing her daughter. There’s an American astronaut, Mike Shannon (Matt Dillon), whose too-apparent skepticism sends Sarah internally reeling from the moment he introduces her to the press as a Frenchwoman who, by nature of her kind, must be a great cook. Dillon not only nails such hapless misogyny but stands in for men in the workplace, broadly speaking: men who, unsure of how to acknowledge women colleagues as equals and peers, practice a form of collegiality predicated on reductive belittlement, harmless “jokes,” and offhanded undermining.
But Winocour is too sensitive a writer for Sarah’s plights to be reduced to workplace politics or a suppressed maternal emotions. The French filmmaker co-wrote the 2015 Oscar-nominated drama Mustang, about a quintet of young Turkish women whose self-discoveries are at odds with the mores of their guardians, and for writing and directing the Matthias Schoenaerts vehicle Disorder, which took on PTSD. Her latest is something far more tense and fluid than a stock cosmic melodrama, ping-ponging as it does between Sarah’s training montages at Star City and her communications with Stella: voiceover-read letters, Facetime calls, snippets of video diaries. What’s dredged up by every bit of the film’s fabric and style is a sense of isolation. Not only because Sarah is the only woman, or this training compound feels completely divorced from the rest of the world. And not even because, as a late addition to the team whose own replacement (a man) is training as well, her qualifications seem continually subject to question.
All of that is pungent, and often poignant. But Proxima, with its cool hues and steady gaze, its sense of Sarah’s alien-ness among ostensible fellow-humans, proves most evocative as a study of a mother’s how-tenuous ties to her daughter. It’s a movie that puts its finger on the complication of being your daughter’s hero while also having to leave her behind on earth in order to do so.
Eva Green is an ideal choice to lead a film like this, with her Mona Lisa mask of walled-off sentiment complicated our sense of this woman and what she’s feeling. (Is that a grimace when Mike negs her, or a wry smile, or something closer to being on the verge of tears?) The movie puts her in the interpersonally perilous and unenviable position of having to accomplish the impossible under the watchful eye of not only a skeptic, but a daughter who idolizes you. Both positions leave no room for screw-ups.
And the film is broad enough to encompass, and have some fun with, all the minor eccentricities of astronauts’ lives. Some of this is cleverly modern: Sarah’s complaint that a PR manager wants her to be better at social media, for example, or a doctor’s questioning whether she’s sure, absolutely sure, she’d like to continue menstruating in space. (That she says yes feels indicative of something.) Winocour makes an admirable effort not to short-change the practicalities; watching Sarah sit for the mold of what will become her seat on the Soyuz is oddly thrilling, an original seat for an original woman. It’s a life of biological data and odd tasks, limits and capabilities. She practices reading and watching movies upside down. She practices learning how to take care of her daughter from a distance.
The diaristic elements are part of what distinguish Proxima and give it an inward-looking feel. But the effect of this is undercut, somewhat, by the film too easily resolving some of the tension with Mike, who seems to come around on her being fit for the job in ways that feel like a psychological short cut. There’s a broader imbalance, too, in the stance the film takes toward precisely this question of Sarah’s capabilities. So much of what we see of her training is of her screwing up — and in ways meant to bear on her inner life, no less. But it’s hard to believe that Sarah would be late to sessions, or fall short in any way; the scenes risk invalidating the prowess that got her here, doubly risking attributing too much of this to her anxieties over her daughter.
These qualities humanize Sarah. But not nearly as much as her interactions with other women. There’s the lady who introduces her to life on the compound, and whose pride on Sarah’s behalf, as the rare woman astronaut and the first to go to Mars, couldn’t be more palpable. There’s also the counselor at the compound, Wendy (Sandra Hüller), whose affect feels a little frosty before revealing the warmth and concern beneath her straightforward pragmatism. A fellow astronaut, meanwhile, sums up their collective dilemma in ways that Sarah seems to already know, but hasn’t yet articulated. “The hard part is coming back,” he says. “When you realize that life goes on without you.” With this, much about Sarah — the anxiety we’ve witnessed throughout — clarifies itself.
Proxima’s closing credits are punctuated by photos of history’s space women — specifically, its space mothers, all of them pictured with their sons and daughters: Naoko Yamazaki. Elena Kondakova. Cady Coleman. Ellen Ochoa. Susan Kilrain. I thought, too, of Christa McAuliffe, mother of two, who died in the 1970 Challenger explosion. What becomes of our hero, we do not know. This is for the better. It reminds us why we’re here. Space is Sarah’s mission, but not Proxima’s, and not ours. This film is about a lonely position, one rooted in the particulars of space travel but hardly limited to them. Its power is in the build-up. Its payoff is in the uncertainty of what comes next.