By Lady Beverly Cohn
Any career woman, who has been faced with juggling her work with parental responsibilities, will relate to French director Alice Winocour’s “Proxima.” Co-written with Jean-Stéphane Bron, the film is basically a family drama centering on a female astronaut in training for a space trip to Mars. Driven by the impeccable characterization of Sarah Loreau by Eva Green, the film is a pre-blast-off excursion into the delicate balance between Sarah and her seven-year-old daughter Stella, beautifully rendered by talented Zélie Boulant-Lemesle, who makes her film debut.
Unlike the “Hollywoodish” superficial character and relationship development in the Netflix series “Away” starring Hillary Swank, Winocour’s script delves deeply into the changing family dynamic, which is spot on and intriguing, illuminating the roller coaster of emotions that mother and daughter experience during the pre-flight training process.
Sarah sits quietly with Stella, explaining that she has been chosen to be an astronaut and that her training will commence shortly, after which she will be gone for a year. In a very poignant moment, her child asks, “Will you die before me?” Sarah tries to skim over the answer and as she’s tucking her in casually says, “That is customary.” In order to move forward, Sarah must enlist the aid of her ex-partner and Stella’s dad Lars Eidinger to become the primary caretaker.
Nicely played by Thomas Ackerman, at first Lars is reluctant to be a full-time dad and can’t understand why his “ex” wants to do this. She tells him that being an astronaut has been her dream ever since she was a little girl and put a lampshade on her head. Being in the space business himself, Lars agrees and his daughter moves in along with her cat Laika.
Sarah is the only woman selected for this special mission, the training of which will take place at the European Space Agency in Cologne, Germany under the supervision of team commander, and somewhat sexist Mike Shannon, aptly played by Matt Dillon. On occasion, he tries to pull her off parts of the training that he thinks might be too daunting, citing that she might not have the core skills. Offended, she insists that she can do it, and does as well as the male astronauts, including the grueling 9G Gravity machine.
The training scenes are intense and beautifully captured by cinematographer Georges Lechaptois, who lingers on a frame before cutting to the next shot. Leisure time is given to the astronauts who, one night, sat around a campfire reciting poetry: “Give me a garden of beautiful flowers where I can walk undisturbed.” As the training nears completion, Stella and her dad are moved to housing in Cologne for families of the astronauts. Supervised by astrophysicist Wendy, played by Sandra Hüller, she takes Stella under her wing and becomes her surrogate mother.
In between training sessions, Sarah spends time with her daughter and there is a sweet scene of them ice-skating together. But, Stella is quite unhappy as being dyslexic, she is having trouble keeping up with the other kids and can’t do the multiplication tables.
Throughout the film we see Sarah’s devotion to her training, as well as her deep concern for her daughter’s well being. As the time allowed to spend with her daughter shortens, Stella begins to withdraw and forms a strong bond with Wendy.
Blast-off is nearing and reality of the potential danger of the mission is setting in and each astronaut is asked to write a “just in case” letter to their families. They are also allowed to bring a few mementoes on board to remember their earth connections, such as favorite family photos, shots of water, forests, and even ladybugs.
They can bring enough stuff to fill a shoebox – no more than that. Being so close to takeoff, and to avoid any contamination, the astronauts can now only see their families through a glass partition and you can see the pain Sarah is feeling in not being able to hold her child one last time before she leaves for outer space. It is about here that she takes what is an implausible dramatic action that endangers not only herself, but also the mission.
Perhaps it was to heighten the drama and to hammer home Sarah’s devotion to her child. However, taking that action flies in the face of all her training and leaves you doubting her commitment. Not a good message as breaking serious rules doesn’t shine a positive light on Sarah and brings into question the ability of a woman to walk the line between parenting and career. Despite this contrived dramatic moment, the schedule is maintained and all the astronauts are suited up. But is it a “go?”