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Review: Proxima Does Not Chart New Terrain for the Space Saga

The film falls back on a reductive rumination on the balance between maternal obligation and career aspiration.

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Jake Cole

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Proxima
Photo: Vertical Entertainment

Alice Winocour’s Proxima establishes its thesis before its first shot. Over a black screen, astronaut Sarah (Eva Green) explains the mechanics of spaceflight to her young daughter, Stella (Zélie Boulant), rendering technical details as a kind of soothing bedtime story. Then, the first images show Sarah in training, practicing how to put out a fire in a spaceship. The contrast between Sarah’s maternal care, her wistful view of space, and the hard reality of preparing for extraterrestrial flight form the core of Winocour’s film, in which the allure of spaceflight is checked by the grueling process of qualifying for it.

Sarah, a replacement for an astronaut who wasn’t cleared for flight, is chosen to be part of the last exploratory mission that will set up the first manned mission to Mars. Her status as a backup leads to early scenes in which she’s treated more like a “space tourist” by mission captain Mike Shannon (Matt Dillon), a smug American who publicly welcomes her to the program by noting that French women are purportedly good cooks. It’s the first of a number of sexist remarks made at Sarah’s expense in Proxima, but such moments feel awkward and forced for a film set in the near-future, after many women have already flown in space.

Even stranger is how often the film itself falls back on a reductive rumination on the balance between maternal obligation and career aspiration. Much of Proxima, co-written by Winocour and Jean-Stéphane Bron, hinges on Sarah’s inability to be separated from Stella and take part in the lengthy isolation process that prepares astronauts for the loneliness of space missions. Sarah speaks frequently of a lifelong dream of flying in space, yet she regularly breaks protocol to make sure Stella is present, even arranging for the girl to sit with her in classified meetings.

Sarah’s attachment to her child is nothing she could have planned for when she was herself a little girl dreaming of becoming an astronaut, and at times the film meaningfully engages with the manner in which the complications of life on Earth may be as much an impediment to stellar exploration as any technological limitation. But it’s hard to feel Sarah’s separation anxiety when Stella never truly leaves. Even when Sarah and Stella are in different countries, their constant contact and Stella’s frequent trips to visit her mother robs the film of any sense of how Sarah might actually react to true isolation. Stella’s omnipresence also undercuts Sarah’s professionalism to such an extent that it’s surprising that she isn’t pulled from the mission given her blatant inability to psychologically handle a yearlong separation.

When Proxima does click, it usually does so on the strength of Green’s performance, namely the actress’s expert use of minute facial expressions to communicate the depths to her character. In several scenes, Sarah responds to male condescension with a wide smile, but the slightest of eye twitches or flaring of her nostrils gives away her true feelings. By comparison, the tenderness of her speech and touch tells no lies about her relationship to Stella. Boulant, too, proves to be a marvelous actor, playing her character with a precociousness that doesn’t descend into cloying treacle. Stella never feels older than she should, but she nonetheless grasps both the severity of her mother’s upcoming mission and her own difficulty in processing their necessary separation. The scenes in which Green and Boulant share the screen radiate chemistry so powerful that it makes the film’s inert narrative about the stresses placed on a mother-daughter relationship all the more frustrating.

Cast: Eva Green, Matt Dillon, Zélie Boulant, Lars Eidinger, Sandra Hüller, Aleksey Fateev Director: Alice Winocour Screenwriter: Alice Winocour, Jean-Stéphane Bron Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 107 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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