GFF Exclusive Review: Proxima

Year: 2019
Runtime: 107 Minutes

Director: Alice Winocour

Writers: Alice Winocour (screenplay), Jean-Stéphane Bron (collaboration)

Stars: Eva Green, Zélie Boulant, Matt Dillon

By Calum Cooper

During the Q&A after the screening of “Proxima” (2019), writer/director Alice Winocour commented on the significance of its title. For “Proxima” is not just the name of the central space mission within the film. Proxima Centauri is the name of the closest star to our solar system outside of the Sun, yet is still 4.2 light years away. Winocour described this star as so close yet so distant too, a description which is at the heart of this film’s themes – one of the key reasons why “Proxima” works as well as it does.

Opening the 2020 Glasgow Film Festival, this French drama stars Eva Green as astronaut Sarah Loreau. She is selected for a one year mission on the ISS, a choice which delights Sarah. This is what she has always wanted. But there are certain complications. Not only must she undergo rigorous training for the mission, but she is leaving behind her eight-year-old daughter Stella (Zelie Bouland), who struggles to comprehend the idea of not seeing her mother for a whole year.

“Proxima” demonstrates the struggle of the work/life balance to, quite literally, an interstellar level. Being an astronaut is lionised by popular culture, and not unjustifiably so. But few explore the earthly attachments that need to be pushed to the side in a job like this. What makes “Proxima” so unique is not only its largely earth-based story, but in its exploration of a relationship that is only now starting to get much more exposure in cinema – the mother daughter relationship.

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Eva Green in Proxima (2019)

Shot on location in genuine astronaut training facilities across Europe and Kazakhstan, the film is distinctly grounded in realism – from the effects of space on the human body, which are discussed at length during training, to the inner turmoil of mother and daughter alike. Some have called the film documentarian in its attention to detail on astronaut training. This is a description that Winocour said she was annoyed by, and understandably so. Yes it is probably the most true to life of any recent space film. But as fun and daunting as the technicalities of being an astronaut is, it’s in the domestic drama where the film shines brightest.

“Proxima” demonstrates the struggle of the work/life balance to, quite literally, an interstellar level. Being an astronaut is lionised by popular culture, and not unjustifiably so.

This aspect of “Proxima” works so beautifully because it shows both mother and daughter’s point of view. To go to space is a dream that Sarah has had since she was Stella’s age, yet doing so will mean missing a chunk of Stella’s life. Many scenes of the film concurrently run with Sarah’s training, showing that she is already missing new developments in her daughter’s life just from training. Add on the physical and psychological strains space training places on her and it is easy to see how she would become so conflicted. It takes the dilemma adults often face – chasing a dream versus personal responsibilities – and weaponises it to great effect.

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Matt Dillon and Eva Green in Proxima (2019)

But from young Stella’s perspective she is essentially losing her mum for a year. Many of us will have had that parent who went on business trips, which as a young child is scary enough. Imagine if your mum was literally leaving the planet. On top of that, this arrangement has resulted in Stella having to move in with her father and changing schools, effectively restarting her life. Her father cares for her well, but he just isn’t the same as Sarah to Stella. Can we blame her for feeling as though she is being abandoned?

Sarah and Stella’s relationship is both the selling point, and the greatest strength of “Proxima”. Winocour’s script is sensitive and empathetic, inspired by Winocour’s relationship with her own young daughter. Simultaneously, Winocour’s direction is even-handed and dexterously balances the awe of travelling across the stars with the fear of what we may need to let go of to achieve this. The themes can be a little on the nose at instances, but the central performances more than make up for this. Eva Green is magnificent as always, but it is young Zelie Bouland that steals the show as wee Stella. Engaging, charismatic, and fully aware of the weight of a role like this, Bouland has a brilliant future ahead of her.

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Eva Green & Zélie Boulant in Proxima (2019)

The work/life balance is tough to even out – arguably more so for women due to the way media and culture has perpetuated certain stereotypes over the years. One audience member at the Opening Gala asked Winocour whether she thought Sarah was being selfish to want to go to space, a question that both fundamentally misses the point of the film, and probably wouldn’t have been asked had this been a father preparing to go to space.

Winocour’s script is sensitive and empathetic, inspired by Winocour’s relationship with her own young daughter. Simultaneously, Winocour’s direction is even-handed and dexterously balances the awe of travelling across the stars with the fear of what we may need to let go of to achieve this.

“Proxima” examines this balance in regards to women with stunning craftsmanship and mature insight. Round that off with a great supporting cast to accompany its two brilliant leads, and a score from Ryuichi Sakamoto that captures the full emotional range of a story this personal, and you have a stunning ode to mothers and daughters with a glorious intergalactic background.

In short, “Proxima” is yet another excellent start to what is shaping to be another excellent Glasgow Film Festival.

4 stars

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