Proxima: Review. By John Battiston.
Space is no place for a woman … at least, that’s what Sarah Loreau’s mother tried to tell her as a little girl. Proxima, the new film from French writer-director Alice Winocour, opens to find Sarah (Eva Green), now in her thirties, in the middle of a taxing training exercise in a European Space Agency facility.
From the montage that follows, we infer space travel is something Sarah, against her mother’s advisement, has been working toward for ages, during which time she and her (now-estranged) husband have had a daughter, Stella (Zélie Boulant).
After learning she’s been chosen as a last-minute addition to a year-long mission to Mars — the first in human history — Sarah can hardly contain her excitement. But going to space means having to hand Stella, for whom Sarah is the primary caregiver, over to her husband, Thomas (Lars Eidinger). And though a lifetime of ambition to rise through the ranks in a largely male-dominant field has prepared her for this moment, Sarah’s separation from Stella leads the great beyond to cast a gradually darker shadow from overhead, and the astronaut-to-be can’t help but question whether her loftiest desires are worth losing irrecoverable time with her dearest love.
When a filmmaker seeks to push the limits of a genre, their approach is seldom to limit the cinematic scope that genre usually entails. But that’s exactly what Winocour does with Proxima, restricting its narrative almost entirely to subdued yet often wrenching interpersonal conflict. Is it proper to call this a space movie when not a single scene takes place outside Earth’s atmosphere? Perhaps not. But even as a story entirely focused on the lead-up to liftoff, Proxima powerfully communicates the punishing confinement and claustrophobia said mission will inevitably entail, yet does not lose sight of its emotional crux in so doing.
From the outset, Winocour dons no pretense about the kind of movie Proxima is trying to be. Muted coloration, often vérité-style camerawork, hushed dialogue and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s etherial score betray the film’s small-scale ambitions, and its themes are never stated outright. About as barefaced as the movie gets is with the introduction of the mission’s captain, Mike Shannon (Matt Dillon), who all but wears his chauvinism on his sleeve. Still, conspicuous as Shannon may be, he is still a necessary, even clever construction on Winocour’s part, a foil who further ratifies our heroine’s determination to outperform that which is expected of her yet, in turn, further strains her and Stella’s bond.
But Proxima would not have nearly as indelible an impact as it does with less capable performances at its core. Green’s ability to incrementally, understatedly, yet excruciatingly convey Sarah’s all-consuming dilemma matches splendidly with Boulant’s internalized, precocious energy, uncannily evoking a dynamic of mutual understanding, frustration and heartbreak that often defines the mother-daughter relationship. They and other cast members are all snug fits for Winocour’s understated vision, with very few instances of heightened enunciation or capital-A Acting to be found. Rather, Winocour excavates profound metaphor from the little, seemingly insignificant interactions, never from over-manufactured imagery, stilted soliloquies or other tools lesser filmmakers might cling to.
Without losing itself to spectacle or pedantry of any kind, Proxima ultimately triumphs as a quietly bruising, yet ultimately life-affirming look at the inner war often waged between ambition and love. Though not the visually dazzling glimpse of the cosmos one might expect it to be, its emotional depth and shrewd grip on humanity will leave an impact no less than astronomical.
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