'Proxima': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
An intimate space drama that’s emotionally down-to-earth.

Eva Green prepares for blastoff in French writer-director Alice Winocour's third feature, which also stars Matt Dillon, Lars Eidinger and Sandra Hüller.

Moms all around the world face the arduous task of pursuing their careers while also trying to raise their children. But what about a mom who's about to go out of this world?

That’s the central question fueling French director Alice Winocour’s latest feature, Proxima, which stars Eva Green as an astronaut preparing for space travel while her young daughter, Stella — played by the luminous Zélie Boulant-Lemesle — stays back home.

Shot on location in actual training facilities in Europe, Russia and Kazakhstan, this superbly crafted yet intimate family drama is so realistic in terms of its setting and technical specificity, it sometimes feels like a documentary. And yet the moving mother-daughter story at its core gives all the space-walk prep and zero gravity logistics a steady emotional grounding — one that builds to a powerful liftoff in the closing reel.

Premiering in Toronto’s Platform competition, Winocour’s ambitious third feature could easily have played in Venice as well, providing a rich femme-centric counterweight to James Gray’s father-son space epic, Ad Astra. (Toronto will also premiere the Natalie Portman back-to-earth astronaut drama, Lucy in the Sky.) It’s perhaps a tad deliberate in spots, hitting its central theme too heavily on the nose, but Proxima pulls off an impressive balancing act between the personal and the astronomical, a fact that should give this Pathé title a boost in France and beyond.

“Will you die before me?” is one of several things that Stella (Boulant-Lemesle), a precocious little girl (her age is never mentioned, but she looks to be around eight) with a penchant for disarming frankness asks her mother, Sarah (Green), at the start of the movie. It’s a question that any kid could come up with, but this time it’s loaded with meaning because Sarah is about to take off for training at the European Space Agency before heading out on a long mission to the International Space Station.

The training entails a rigorous physical and psychological regimen that begins in Cologne, where mother and daughter live close to the girl’s astrophysicist dad, Thoma (Lars Eidinger), who’s amicably separated from Sarah and very attentive with Stella. Then it moves on to Star City, outside of Moscow, where Sarah and fellow astronauts, Mike Shannon (Matt Dillon) and Anton Ochievski (Aleksey Fateev, from Loveless), go through intense preparation for several weeks, before moving on to Baikonur in Kazakhstan, where their rocket will launch.

Setting her story inside the real facilities of ESA, with French astronaut Thomas Pesquet making a guest appearance, Winocour is much more concerned with space fact than with science fiction, grounding her film in a number of daunting technological realities. We see Sarah getting put through the wringer time and again, withstanding impossible g-forces in a centrifuge, wearing heavy spacewalking gear underwater, running 15 kilometers a day and trying to keep her heart rate down the whole time.   

Green is ideally cast as a career perfectionist who’s meant to reveal zero emotion when she’s on the job, showing that Sarah has the right stuff for space travel alongside more seemingly stoical men like Anton and Mike. The latter, who initially comes across as a sexist, overconfident cowboy — a role Dillon slips into effortlessly — turns out to have more heart than we thought as Sarah, separated from Stella for long periods and increasingly anxious about her daughter, begins to lose her cool.

The push-and-pull between the two forms the crux of the narrative: Stella is her mother's Achilles’ heel, weighing her down with unneeded psychological stress and causing her to slip up at key moments. And yet she’s also what keeps her mom going — she’s the one intimate connection Sarah has in a world that’s hermetically sealed off, both from the hazards of outer space and the perilous emotions that can cause an astronaut to put everyone else in danger.

Jumping back and forth between work and home, mother and daughter — sometimes too schematically in places — Winocour constantly undercuts the factual elements of her movie with the fictional relationship driving it, reminding us that for women like Stella, but really for any working parent, juggling two lives can be an exhausting experience that takes its toll.

The director’s previous features (the psychiatry period drama Augustine and the tense bodyguard thriller Disorder) also dealt with characters torn between their professional lives and their private ones, with the two often intertwining in threatening ways. Here, she manages to expand that theme to an even wider canvas that encompasses all the formidable duties required of an astronaut as they prepare for a mission, showing how superhuman feats are required of people — and in this specific case, a woman — who are all-too-human. (The theme is also reminiscent of the recent Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, and this film could proudly and effectively be titled First Woman.)

To capture that reality, Winocour has brought in a formidable technical team of her own, including regular cameraman George Lechaptois (An Easy Girl), production designer Florian Sanson (Holy Motors) and legendary composer Ryūichi Sakamoto (The Revenant), whose score lends the drama a constant emotional undercurrent.

Alongside Green and the promising Boulant-Lemesle, Dillon and Fateev provide excellent support as two stiff-jawed space travelers who can both recite poetry at will, while the talented Eidinger (Personal Shopper) gives Thoma plenty of depth in his handful of scenes. Rounding out the cast is Toni Erdmann star Sandra Hüller, who movingly plays a psychologist charged with the tricky task of guiding the family through the unknown.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Platform)
Production companies: Dharamsala, Darius Films, Pathé, France 3 Cinéma, Pandora Film
Cast: Eva Green, Zélie Boulant-Lemesle, Matt Dillon, Aleksey Fateev, Lars Eidinger, Sandra Hüller
Director: Alice Winocour
Screenwriter: Alice Winocour, with the collaboration of Jean-Stéphane Bron
Producers: Isabelle Madelaine, Emilie Tisné
Director of photography: George Lechaptois
Production designer: Florian Sanson
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Editor: Julien Lacheray
Composer: Ryūichi Sakamoto
Casting director: Anais Duran
Sales: Pathé

In French, English, Russian, German
107 minutes