Most audiences know Eva Green for her performances in stylised genre fare. The actress has played more than her fair share of witches and femme fatales, who effortlessly devour their on-screen surroundings. Green’s mainstream castings have also placed her in such settings as Victorian London, Sin City and Ancient Greece.
The thing is, despite appearing in escapist blockbusters, Green has also consistently demonstrated her acting chops by starring in smaller indie films – lesser-seen arthouse fare that teams her with some of Europe’s most acclaimed auteurs. Green’s latest, the astronaut drama Proxima, belongs in the latter camp. So, don’t go into it expecting the hard science fiction intensity, and special effects wizardry, of Gravity or The Martian.
Directed and co-written by celebrated French filmmaker Alice Winocour, Proxima centres on Sarah Loreau (Green), an engineer about to fulfil her lifelong dream of becoming an astronaut. As if preparations for the Proxima mission – a pivotal next step in landing Man on Mars – weren’t already gruelling, Sarah faces further psychological strain. As a single mother, accepting the mission means a year-long separation from her young daughter, Stella.
If the premise sounds similar to Netflix’s Away, the slick and shiny series starring Hillary Swank, it is. However, Proxima technically came first despite the release date switcheroo, and while Away adopted a new-crisis-every-episode structure, both on Earth and in space, Proxima keeps things grounded in every sense. The film provides possibly one of the most accurate depictions of contemporary astronaut preparations captured on screen, and was shot at various European Space Agency facilities, including Star City.
Proxima is fascinating in this regard, touching on practical issues like how Sarah will handle menstruation in space; and showing prelaunch measures such as astronaut team building, and body molding to ensure rocket seats fit each individual snuggly. This gives it a documentarian feel at times, and that sense is enhanced by Proxima’s multilingualism. The movie is largely subtitled, with the dialogue continually shifting between French, German, English and Russian. This authentically reflects the cross-border collaboration that underpins the European space programme.
Delving into the details of manned space exploration isn’t the point of Proxima, however. The film’s dramatic thrust stems from ye olde tug of war between maternal love and personal ambition. Sarah has a lot to prove, having joined the Proxima mission late, and as the only woman on the crew. Especially judgemental is Proxima’s mildly sexist American captain, Mike (Matt Dillon).
A big problem is that Sarah finds herself continually distracted by her motherly responsibilities. Even before lift-off, Stella struggles with mother-daughter separation while Sarah undergoes intense training at remote locations.
On that note, there’s no question that Proxima is a fantastic showcase for Eva Green’s dramatic talents, and commitment as an actress. Far removed from the stylised characters she is famous for, Green’s Sarah is a real woman pulled in multiple directions – stoically trying to deliver on all fronts while being torn apart under her calm exterior. Green is well-matched by Zélie Boulant-Lemesle as her onscreen daughter. Boulant-Lemesle achieves the difficult task of keeping seven-year-old Stella likeable and non-bratty, even as she acts out because of mounting frustration and fear.
Proxima is very well acted, and it’s interesting, but narratively it never takes off. Mostly it seems to drift towards its conclusion, instead of demonstrating any sense of propulsion. You never feel like Sarah is going to abandon the mission, or is at risk of being sidelined. Even leaving Stella with Thomas (Lars Eidinger) – Sarah’s estranged astrophysicist husband – isn’t presented as the worst thing. Thomas may make mistakes, but he’s still a loving father, making an effort for his daughter and his ex.
Sarah and Stella clearly grow over the course of the film – learning to let go of one another, and embrace opportunities apart instead of becoming mired in guilt and anxiety. However, Proxima lacks a real point, or compelling hook, for viewers to tether themselves to. At 107 minutes, the film isn’t long, but there’s a good chance that audience interest will wane, especially in the final third of the film. Then there’s behaviour from Sarah right at the end of the movie that could easily sap sympathy, especially in the viewing context of COVID-19.
Proxima is well made in so many ways. It’s just unable to take that small step beyond thoughtful and thought-provoking, to enthralling. It makes an effort to spotlight the various women astronauts whose accomplishments have included motherhood, but as a family drama, the way its story plays out simply isn’t as pioneering as its subject matter.
Having started touring the film festival circuit in 2019, where it won awards at the Toronto International Film festival and San Sebastian International Film Festival, Proxima is out now on digital and VOD platforms.
Last Updated: November 6, 2020