“One giant leap for womankind”
As Sarah (Eva Green) puts her daughter Stella (Zélie Boulant) to bed, they go through the motions of their routine. ‘First degree of separation’, the mother says before kissing Stella on the cheek. “Second degree of separation”, the daughter chimes back before Sarah goes in for another peck. If you look up the word ‘proximal’ in the dictionary you’ll see it defined as ‘situated close to’ or ‘nearest the point of attachment’ – but as it turns out, Alice Winocour’s Proxima is all about letting go.
In showing the build-up to Sarah embarking on her first mission to the International Space Station, Proxima depicts the ultimate severance between mother and daughter. She’s doing more than saying goodbye until morning; she’s departing from the planet entirely.
Directed and written by the French filmmaker, Proxima is Winocour’s subtle, serene take on motherhood, and what it means to pursue your dreams when you’re also responsible for another human. It moves slowly and deliberately, signalling the intimate bond between mother and daughter through lyrical French dialogue and tactile touches.
Set in the weeks ahead of the rocket launch, rather than during the mission itself, Proxima gives us insight into a part of being an astronaut that we rarely get to see – what it actually takes to become a ‘space person’. The training is gruelling, with weeks of anti-gravity exposure, underwater drills and 15km runs. The physical pressure takes its toll on Sarah and the viewer, but her resolve barely shakes.
As the launch gets closer, her disadvantages compared to her fellow astronauts become clearer. She struggles in training – not because she is a woman, but because she carries a preoccupation of concern for her daughter back home at all times. It’s a weight that her male colleagues don’t seem to have to bear. The vast, expansive nature of the journey Sarah is about to embark on is often directly juxtaposed to the relatively small milestones in Stella’s life: the mother is preparing to sail amongst the stars and gaze down on Earth itself, whilst the daughter uses her telescope to spy on her ‘sweetheart’ next door.
Eva Green is much calmer and more considered here than we might have come to expect. Stripped of her usual Burton-esque gothic drama, she is a quiet force of nature. Matt Dillon’s Mike, on the other hand, is both an antagonist and a friend. His misogyny rears its head at times and his camaraderie at others, making him an unpredictable presence. Elsewhere in the supporting cast, Lars Eidinger is excellent as Stella’s father, Thomas. Fear flits across his face at the idea of being Stella’s sole guardian during Sarah’s flight, and his sometimes condescending tone just makes him another addition to the list of men that continue to underestimate her.
The film is reminiscent of James Gray’s Ad Astra (2019) in regards to both tone and the impact of journeys to outer space on parent-child relationships. So too are its flaws, depending on how hard you’re looking for them. Long, quiet scenes are many and often, and the pace may be too glacial for some. But seeing the photos of noted female astronauts and their children interspersed throughout the credits is what really adds weight to this story, as you realise just how high a price women like Sarah had to pay. Leaving children behind to explore the great unknown may have been one small step for man, but as Proxima depicts, it’s one giant leap for womankind.
Dir: Alice Winocour
Script: Alice Winocour, Jean-Stéphane Bron
Cast: Eva Green, Matt Dillon, Zélie Boulant