Alice Winocour’s Proxima follows French astronaut Sarah Loreau as she trains for a year-long space mission, with young daughter Stella in tow. It’s a fiery mix of ambition, mother-daughter love, female empowerment and childhood dreams – the gravities of each masterfully held together in the film, like planets in the canvas of space, revolving harmoniously around the sun.
Proxima stars Eva Green as Sarah Loreau, treading the tired and tiresome path of working in the male-dominated space-travelling industry – and being asked to prove her competence at every turn. There is the boisterous American astronaut, Mike Shannon (played by Matt Dillon), always channelling alpha-male, chest-thumping bravado, and Sasha, whose first words to Sarah are, “How about that, guys? A girl, at last.” On the other hand, the quieter, more sensitive Russian astronaut Anton is a breath of fresh air – along with Sarah’s separated husband (and astrophysicist), Thomas, who she shares a polite, and sometimes surprisingly warm relationship with.
Proxima progresses with Sarah’s technical, labour-intensive preparation for the space mission, as well as the delicate familial challenges which accompany her journey. However, some of the film’s best moments come in its boldly-sketched expression of space travel’s eternal allure, the poetry of the stars. There are ethereal sequences, otherworldly in every sense – Stella, ambling on a lunar landscape in a gallery, suspended against the backdrop of space – or mother and daughter gazing at the mission rocket on the day of launch, awash in the warm glow of sunrise.
The well-trodden narrative of an astronaut’s career always starts with the proverbial “childhood dream”, often via the first subliminal glimpse of the Milky Way or shooting star on a cool summer night, which awakens something profound within a child (“And that’s how I knew I wanted to be an astronaut!”). But this film digs deeper – what happens when two childhoods collide?
On one hand, you have the mother, Sarah, on the brink of achieving her childhood dream of embarking on a space mission – and on the other, you have the precocious, young Stella, who lies awake on her bed, riddled with anxiety because of the risks which come with her mother pursuing that very dream of space. These are potent collisions, where each character’s steely exterior gives way to something more vulnerable burbling underneath. Rightfully, the camera always lingers a few seconds longer on Sarah and Stella’s faces, pausing for us to contemplate their rich inner worlds. What are they thinking? How are they feeling?
In Proxima’s end credits, the traditional list of cast and crew involved in the making of the film are interspersed with the images and names of real-life female astronauts, accompanied by their children – a clever way to pay homage to and “credit” the space-travelling women who have gone before and blazed the trail. Sarah muses in the film, “I’ve trained for so long to leave Earth, and now that it’s time to go, I never felt so attached to it”.
While Sarah’s male astronaut team members more easily shed their roles as fathers, husbands and sons in the hyper-focused mission-prep environment, Proxima quietly argues that, at least for Sarah, despite all the challenges, the journey is far richer, and all the more glorious, shared with and seen through her daughter’s eyes. With a daughter named Stella (Latin for “star”), Sarah was perhaps on a celestial journey all along, as mother and astronaut, hurtling towards the stars.