Review: “Proxima”

Year: 2019
Director: Alice Winocour
Writers: Alice Winocour with Jean-Stéphane Bron
Starring: Eva Green, Matt Dillon, Lars Eidinger

By Simon Whitlock

Western cinema has enjoyed a proud history of female-led space films. From “Alien” to “Gravity,” women have made the final frontier very much theirs. Joining this rich pantheon is director Alice Winocour’s latest feature “Proxima,” the story of French astronaut Sarah Loreau (Eva Green, “Euphoria,” “Penny Dreadful”) as she prepares for a mission to Mars while fulfilling her responsibilities to her young daughter, Stella (Zélie Boulant-Lemesle). The film is now available through video on demand.

Sarah is the only woman on a team led by American Mike Shannon (Matt Dillon, “Wayward Pines”), thus giving her the added pressure of feeling as if she needs to gain his and the team’s approval. Dillon appears to be playing very much to type here, portraying Shannon at first as a brash, often sexist man whose only positive response to Sarah joining his crew is to suggest that she’ll be in charge of the cooking. Shannon’s views and reticence to accept Sarah are challenged as the film progresses, and the great script by Winocour (“Disorder,” “Augustine”) with Jean-Stéphane Bron cleverly subverts expectations for his character by the end of the film.

Eva Green in “Proxima” / Courtesy of IMDB.com

The film parallels Sarah’s preparation for her mission with Stella’s transition to a new life being separated — albeit temporarily — from her mother. The dynamic between mother and daughter is by far the film’s most interesting element, and both Green and Boulant-Lemesle capture beautifully the quiet heartbreak and difficulty of their loving relationship. Of course, Stella won’t be alone while her mom is in space, and she has her father — Sarah’s former spouse, Thomas (Lars Eidinger) — to care for her. But the film never puts as much stock in the connection between Thomas and Stella as it does into the bond between mother and daughter. 

Despite the strong emotions at play, Winocour deliberately keeps the film from becoming melodramatic. “Proxima” is a film that is very much interested in keeping its action and performances as small and constrained as possible, underpinned by a sombre score by Ryuichi Sakamoto. So much of what happens between the characters is kept below the surface that the brief moments where their emotions finally break through deliver a powerful impact.

Outside of the tension between Sarah and her daughter, and among the mission’s crewmates, Winocour has sought to capture the life of an astronaut in as realistic a way as possible. The film was shot at several locations including the European Space Agency’s Astronaut Centre in Germany and Star City in Russia. There’s painstaking attention to detail throughout, which keeps the emotional drama of “Proxima” quite literally down to Earth. 

Eva Green and Matt Dillon in “Proxima” / Courtesy of IMDB.com

There is a point toward the end of the film where the action becomes more fanciful, and it’s here where the film falters ever so slightly as Sarah takes drastic action on the eve of the mission’s launch. It just about works on an emotional level, but the departure from the detail-oriented substance from the earlier moments renders the film’s climax somewhat jarring. 

All things considered, though, it’s the only misstep in an otherwise well-put-together, understated character piece. As an entry into the sub-genre of space exploration films, “Proxima” may not be the film many would expect, but Green’s and Boulant-Lemesle’s central performances are so good that those expectations quickly become easy to overlook.

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