If men still fought wars for women instead of access to fossil fuels, they’d launch a thousand ships for Eva Green. In Alice Winocour’s Proxima, she plays firmly against that image: The men here wouldn’t even pump gas for her. Green plays Sarah, who has spent her entire life training for a trek to the cosmos, sharpening her mind, building up strength, and, as an adult, steeling herself for the day that she boards a ship and leaves her daughter, Stella (Zélie Boulant-Lemesle), behind on terra firma. Such are an astronaut’s sacrifices. But Sarah’s sacrifices are amplified by the chill reception given her by her crewmates. Her presence is unwanted, her gender seen as a liability.
Winocour’s last film as director, 2015’s Disorder, inhabits the neuroses and tics of its protagonist, an erstwhile soldier hired as a bodyguard struggling with PTSD. Proxima likewise slips into the skin and psychology of Sarah, minus the neurochemical dysregulation. Sarah’s abiding love for Stella is in competition with her aspirations: The two coexist uneasily with each other until the time comes for Sarah to realize the latter by crewing a mission to Mars, which throws the former into disarray. Stella’s father, Thomas (Lars Eidinger), is there to care for her as Sarah’s work takes her away from her daughter and jams a wedge between them more vast than measurable distance ever could, but the price of living her dream is paid partly in guilt.
The rest is paid in disdain and humiliation. Mike (Matt Dillon), the American captaining the mission, thinks she’s too weak to function in space and stops just short of asking her to make him a sandwich. Then again, it’s possible that he’s a dick to Sarah not because he’s a pig, but because space travel really is that difficult, and that Mike’s goal is pushing Sarah so he can observe the circumference of her limits. But she has none, or none that she can’t, won’t, overcome, though she damn near kills herself trying, both physically and emotionally. The hoops one jumps through to qualify for a trip to Mars are endless, but the damage done to Sarah’s bond with Stella plus the scorn heaped on her by the boy’s club take a greater toll.
Mike cuts a swaggering, towering, brash American figure in an otherwise subtle, natural, semi-realist French film. He stands out, but he’s supposed to, and his presence places Winocour’s nuance elsewhere in sharper contrast. This is an unadorned production. Where other space travel pictures often rely at least to a degree on pomp or grandeur or spectacle—see last year’s Ad Astra, which would make a surprisingly fitting double feature—Proxima focuses on the rigors of training and the unavoidable hurt people like Sarah cause and suffer as a hazard of the job. Amazingly, the movie never views Sarah as selfish. It does show at times the hunger she has to succeed overwhelming her parental instincts, smothering her feelings for Stella, but not once does Winocour actually judge her lead. The pull to which Sarah responds is human, and it’s Mike of all people who points out the obvious truth: Being a perfect parent and a perfect astronaut is impossible.
Proxima is a well-considered story about the cost of ambition, intimate in contrast with its scope, and frankly a great depiction of what it’s like to be the kid caught between parents and careers. Stella isn’t just an object acted on by the adult characters. She’s a person with her own agency. This is one of Winocour’s most striking qualities as a storyteller: Her gaze is wide, but she has a gift for keeping order, and so nothing in Proxima goes unconsidered—not one person, not one detail. The film swells with humanity. Even at his worst, Mike feels solid, real, an asshole but an understandable one, and at her worst, Sarah feels torn and self-blaming. She loves Stella, but she hungers for the stars. Green communicates that dichotomy with a tug at the corner of her lips, a tremor across her eyelids. Even at rest, her face tells a tale about the conflict beneath Sarah’s placid surface. Often, Green’s roles weaponize her sexuality, but Proxima approaches Sarah’s body with a franker eye: Men won’t launch ships for unattainable women, and Sarah’s as unattainable to them as work-life balance is for her.
Director: Alice Winocour
Writer: Alice Winocour, Jean-Stéphane Bron
Starring: Eva Green, Matt Dillon, Zélie Boulant-Lemesle, Lars Eidinger, Sandra Hüller
Release Date: November 6, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.