REVIEW: Proxima (2019)

proxima_posterSarah (Eva Green) is a French astronaut in training for a lengthy stay aboard the International Space Station – a final test before a multi-national expedition lands humans on Mars. Accepting the mission – the dream of a lifetime – means leaving her eight year-old daughter Stella (Zélie Boulant-Lemesle) behind with Sarah’s ex-partner Thomas (Lars Eidinger). Is it a price Sarah is prepared to accept?

From writer/director Alice Winocour (and co-writer Jean-Stéphane Bron) comes Proxima, a smart and powerful character drama that combines a feminist fight to gain parity in a male-dominated industry with an emotional struggle to balance a career and one’s personal ambitions with the responsibility and joy of motherhood. It is as deeply grounded in reality – many scenes were shot in actual European Space Agency facilities – as it is grounded in its characters. For its entire lead cast the film acts as an excellent showcase; for star Eva Green it offers a spotlight for a proper tour-de-force.

There have been plenty of films made about space exploration, usually based on or inspired by true stories: Apollo 13, First Man, The Right Stuff, Gargarin: First in Space, and so on. Proxima offers a fresh point of view from multiple directions. First, it focuses on a woman becoming an astronaut rather than a man. Secondly, it focuses on the training process rather than a space mission. Finally, it fully embraces the challenges of engaging in such extreme and actively dangerous work while simultaneously raising a family. While it is true earlier space films have acknowledged astronauts’ wives and children, they have rarely been profiled as clearly.

The training aspects of the film are presented with a solid sense of accuracy and realism. The use of actual facilities and apparatus provide a welcome authenticity and are, in themselves, fascinating to observe. Heading into space is serious business, and Proxima pulls no punches in showcasing the workplace pressure, emotional strain, and the potential for personal conflict that arises.

Matt Dillon is a very welcome inclusion in the film as Mike, the commander of Sarah’s ISS mission. He is American, and presents himself as brash, somewhat impatient, and seemingly less-than-convinced of Sarah’s ability to emotionally handle herself. Winocaur gives his character room to develop, however, so that as his various facets are revealed he becomes increasingly sympathetic. Aleksey Fateev is also eminently enjoyable as Anton, the Russian third member of the mission crew.

Zélie Boulant-Lemesle is yet another juvenile marvel – I feel every decade the quality of child actors in cinema gets better. Stella is a surprisingly complex character for a child to play. She is simultaneously immensely proud of her father and deeply resentful of her absence. The love is clear and the hurt is palpable. She and Green work with each other tremendously well: they are the core of the film, and their relationship is very effective.

Green, of course, is superb. She successfully balances Sarah’s strength and resolve, her brittle insecurities, her love and selfishness, and her painful self-doubt. Green has always been an effective and hugely charismatic actor through the likes of Casino Royale and Penny Dreadful. Even in otherwise poor fare like 300: Rise of an Empire and Tim Burton’s woefully misjudged Dumbo remake Green remains eminently watchable. Proxima seems most likely her best performance to date.

Proxima briefly screened at this year’s French Film Festival in Australia before COVID-19 saw it shut down. It is now available on DVD from Madman Entertainment.

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