The new film by writer/director Alice Winocour (Mustang) has been circling the festivals since last year. It depicts an astronaut’s sacrifice in leaving behind her seven-year-old daughter when she is accepted onto a mission to Mars. Proxima is not a typical space movie that catapults us into the galaxy but rather a meditation on the relationship between opportunity and sacrifice. Our capacity to love beyond our physical proximity is what allows us to pursue our dreams.
We open with Sarah Loreau (Eva Green) training at a space facility in Cologne, France, facing rigorous simulations testing her knowledge of the spacecraft and her physical capabilities. The pulsating sounds of the facility juxtapose against her home life, where she lives alone with her young daughter, Stella (Zélie Boulant), who’s coming to terms with her mother leaving for Moscow for an intense training camp before departing Earth. Stella tags along with Sarah to meet her colleagues Anton Ocheivsky (Aleksey Fateev) and American Mike Shannon (Matt Dillon), the latter of who introduces her to an audience with a sexist remark about how French women are great cooks.
In the days leading up to her departure to Moscow, Sarah takes Stella to meet with social worker Wendy Hauer (Sandra Hüller), who will offer support to Stella while Sarah is away. While she has already explained to Stella the spacecraft’s procedure once leaving Earth and believes she will cope just fine, Wendy reminds Sarah that Stella’s feelings about the reality of the departure will not be so simple. When she finds Stella crying in the hallway, Sarah realizes that this is just the beginning of Stella’s understanding of the journey. Once she leaves Earth, it will be impossible to provide comfort to her daughter’s fears.
While they share tender moments walking in nature, the reality sets in for them when journalists arrive at their home to interview Sarah about the upcoming mission. The departure date is looming, bringing immense changes to both their lives as Sarah takes Stella to her father’s place in Germany to stay for the duration of the mission. Stella takes in the coldness of her new bedroom, a confronting contrast to her home in Cologne. Eva Green’s emotions tell a multitude of expressions with pain and apprehension mixing with excitement for the journey ahead as she stands in the elevator, reeling from saying goodbye to her daughter.
Alice Winocour’s direction is increasingly absorbing as she softens these challenges with beautiful cinematography in the Eastern European landscape. She layers each moment of Sarah’s difficult training with audio of their phone calls, highlighting the challenges for her daughter as she tries to concentrate on her difficult training. Each conversation brings a new understanding that Stella’s life is continuing without Sarah, like when Stella fractures her arm while playing with friends. Her attempts to comfort Stella through the phone are not enough, especially with poor cell reception.
Sarah is also dealing with Mike’s reluctance to accept her abilities as a female astronaut as he tries to persuade her to reduce her schedule. The blatant sexism motivates Sarah to maintain composure and prove her capabilities as a scientist and astronaut. She demonstrates her expertise giving him no reason to treat her any differently. Fortunately, Winocour’s script doesn’t rely on scenes showing Sarah rising to the challenge to prove herself against the men because she has already justified her position– this training camp is the next formality.
Proxima is an often heartbreaking story that feels more urgent than other recent space films. Damien Chazelle’s First Man seemed more concerned with engine turbines, while Noah Hawley’s Lucy in the Sky relied too heavily on being stylized. Winocour’s vision is to be on the ground while showcasing the extraordinary lengths astronauts go through to get to space, both the physical demands and emotional stamina. A tender scene with the astronauts camping in the woods showcases Sarah’s wonder of the stars as she lies between her two sleeping colleagues, watching the night sky. The mission is her dream come true, which has taken years to achieve. She is ready. But what she leaves behind to fulfill this opportunity is becoming harder to fathom. When Stella visits her mum at the Moscow training camp, we watch as Sarah carries Stella in her arms while standing in a pool, and it tells us that holding her daughter will always be more substantial than any mission.
The scope of this film is far-reaching and broad in its relatability because no matter what profession or endeavors we pursue, our love for our family will always remain constant. My family lives on four different continents because we each decided to challenge our notion of comfort and reach beyond our home. We strive every day to gain the success and security we need so that we can come together at some point in the year. When we share the same space, we try to connect at a rapid pace, understanding that the days and hours dwindle quickly, closing in on our separation. It draws out unexpected moments of aching belly laughs and intense sorrow, knowing our lives continue separately while trying to exist together. Particularly now in this pandemic, it has been especially difficult not knowing when we can reunite, and watching Proxima, I felt pride for my family and the journey we decided to traverse. Through four timezones, we love each other against the distance and desperation, and when one day we can be with each other again, we hope that the sacrifice is worth it.
Proxima is a film that understands that our families and friends are bound by more than just our physical selves inhabiting the same space. Our love is weightless beyond what we believe is our capacity to withstand. All we can do is remember how the moments we have together shape our hearts into being as far-reaching as they are and that our choices don’t diminish how we choose to live and love.