Proxima – Glasgow Film Festival 2020 – Film Review

A female astronaut on a space mission is not usually the subject of many films and this is where Proxima truly shines. Telling the remarkable, meditative tale of Sarah, an astronaut, Proxima is a humane but heart-wrenching story outlining that tension between the life of a parent and that of an astronaut. Proxima is also the opening film for the Glasgow Film Festival which starts on 26 February 2020 and reflects its focus on women in film for this year’s festival.

Eva Green is truly impressive as Sarah in Proxima, which may be the best role of her career to date. She takes on this role in Proxima with a zeal providing a nuanced performance which proves her acting range and draws us in to the conflicted tension felt by the character.

Where Proxima differs to other films within this genre is through its emphasis on the rigours of training undertaken by the astronauts in preparation for time in space. At times, filmed with grainy footage in documentary style, Sarah’s gruelling routines are observed. There are no exceptions made for the fact that she is a single mother and such aspect is perceived as a hindrance by other team members with Matt Dillon’s character Mike, in a heavy handed, stereotypical performance, being particularly vocal on such matters to which Sarah tells him that the difference between their situations is that he is able to leave his children at home with his wife.

Sexism is rife and Proxima does not compromise in exploring these elements from the casual, off-hand comments to the offensive comments uttered by the teammates. Elements of the female condition are also highlighted such as what to do with one’s hair whilst in space and the acquisition of other feminine toiletries which have never been the subject of any films that I have previously watched concerning space travel. It is refreshing to observe such aspects being broached within Proxima.

Proxima is director Alice Winocour’s third feature film and is a brave undertaking due to that exploration of astronaut life. At times factual in nature, some of the scenes were actually filmed within the European Space Agency, Proxima is a didactic but visceral film. By the use of close ups, the anxiety experienced and bodily reactions to the physical exertion are vicariously encountered and feel too real. The astronauts, as part of the preparation, are told that the body would age rapidly within 6 months, which Proxima is also, bluntly, teaching us as its audience. The difference for Sarah is in trying to achieve that balance with motherhood.

Sarah is the only teammate to whom the question is posed as to the care of her child, Stella, whilst she is in space on a one-year mission aboard the International Space Station. None of the male astronauts are subjected to such questioning which highlights the various levels of sexism to combat. Eva Green is convincing in portraying that air of combative dialogue when Sarah retorts to her male counterparts.

However, the relationship between Sarah and Stella is at the core of Proxima and is endearing to watch. From the opening scenes, it is apparent that there is a strong mother-daughter bond as Sarah explains to Stella, as a voiceover, the practicalities of travelling within a capsule at a speed of approximately 28,000 km/h with the potential to be floating.

This concept of floating in space is currently under analysis as it appears that the European Space Agency has recently requested for female volunteers to participate in a study to lie in a dry immersion bed to mimic such floating sensation!

Eva Green as Sarah and Zélie Boulant-Lemesle as Stella in Proxima
Eva Green as Sarah and Zélie Boulant-Lemesle as Stella in Proxima

Stella is convincingly played by a very adorable Zélie Boulant-Lemesle who is already multi-lingual and able to converse effortlessly between French and German with her parents. Many of the moments between Stella and Sarah are reminiscent of Interstellar where there is that poignance developed due to the grounded relationship between parent and child. Indeed, it is extremely poignant watching Stella’s gradual realisation that aspects of her life shared with Sarah would inevitably begin to change including her living arrangements. However, Proxima underlines the possibilities there may be for Stella in the future to develop at her own pace with hints that she may also be scientifically minded, similar to her parents.

In a speech given by Sarah to reporters, she remarked that her mother had told her that she could not be an astronaut, which is quite a disheartening notion for our times. Indeed, whilst I was watching this film the International Day for Women and Girls in Science had recently passed which highlighted the progression that has been made towards encouraging more women to enter such scientific fields, which were historically the preserve of men. Equally, there have been British female astronauts such as Helen Sharman who will hopefully illustrate that the barriers for women to enter such fields have reduced.

Proxima uses handheld cameras to explore the domestic life with Sarah and Stella and as such the pacing of the film is quite slow. Such pacing emphasises the emotional resonance connected to their physical separation, which is also shown from Stella’s perspective as she is assigned a counsellor to guide her through the adjustments associated with having a parent embarking on space travel.

Striking imagery coupled with stunning cinematography is on display from the stylish shots of Sarah sitting on the edge of a pier to scenes of her running horizontally on a machine in preparation for life in space. The film’s aspect ratio and the footage style also change as Sarah is told to do more ‘PR’ and so there are humorous but tender moments of her using a ‘Go Pro’ and filming live video updates of the activities during the countdown to space. It is very impressive hearing Eva Green as Sarah converse in not only French and German but also Russian and English throughout the film. As the only woman in the team, she appears to be unique in that language range as the majority of the men remain speaking in their native languages for the most part. It is subtle, but there appears to be that suggestion in Proxima of an unspoken requisite for the female astronauts to have obtained even more skills than their male counterparts in order to qualify.

Perhaps, Proxima could have developed that team dynamic further, there are tense underwater scenes of team exercises and poetry recitals around a fire. However, the film’s focus remains on Sarah and Stella’s mother-daughter relationship. Proxima does examine the impact on the team when Sarah understandably struggles with parental guilt.

The acute sense of isolation endured by Stella is captured effectively. She is found under the table during space travel meetings with the camera filming at the same level to highlight her perspective. The question arises as to whether such level of involvement is beneficial to Stella or is in fact to her detriment as Mike clearly states that it is ‘no place for a child’. The full impact on Stella is revealed in some heart wrenching scenes.

From flight simulations to being inside the rocket, the camera angles are extremely immersive with handheld cameras utilised and the footage reminded me of the technical brilliance of the First Man on occasions. Proxima however provides grittier scenes as there is that examination of how much of a child’s life a parent misses out on whilst preparing for a space mission. This is further compounded as the film also does not evade revealing that the astronauts are effectively quarantined from all, including family, prior to entering the rocket, which are also tear jerking scenes.

Proxima sensitively depicts astronaut life for women. At stages, Proxima seems to suggest, worryingly, that it may be impossible to undertake both roles as a woman or at least that it is extremely difficult to undertake them well. These are themes that have been explored within other films and so do not ultimately provide any new discourse.

However, Proxima is a fresh take on the conventional space films with more emphasis on the training, the preparation and the number of personal sacrifices made. Mike undertakes some character development as well throughout the course of Proxima when he does acknowledge towards the end that ‘there is no such thing as a perfect astronaut or a perfect mother.’

Proxima is an ambitious project and serves as a homage to all those brave female astronauts who made sacrifices in order to assist with scientific advancement. It is a very moving film and when that rocket lifts off into space there truly is a sense of triumph felt over adversity, plus the cinematography is superb in that scene. The ensemble of actors performs well but Proxima is truly Eva Green’s film, although Zélie as Stella does steal the spotlight at moments. It is very interesting to be immersed within the world of a female astronaut and hopefully Proxima will also serve as a useful tool to highlight to younger girls that those dreams of being in space are possible.

Proxima is currently anticipated to be released in UK cinemas in May 2020

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