Back in October (which, in a COVID-19 timeline, may as well be last century) a smallish film called “Lucy in the Sky,” starring Natalie Portman as a post-mission astronaut struggling to accept the limitations of life on earth, opened and closed in short order. It was neither as bad as its dismal reviews and mortifying box office would have you believe, nor as good as you’d hope for from any of the talent involved. Most of all, however, it felt outplayed the moment it appeared, premiering as it did in Toronto alongside “Proxima.” An unostentatious but quietly dazzling meditation on womanhood in the largely patriarchal space race, Alice Winocour’s highly satisfying third feature outdoes many more lavish Hollywood efforts in evoking the otherworldly emotional disconnect that comes with space travel, all without leaving terra firma for the vast bulk of its running time.
Despite enthusiastic initial reviews on the festival circuit — and a special mention from Toronto’s Platform jury — “Proxima” has had a low profile through 2020 so far: A U.S. release through Vertical Entertainment is currently undated, while the French production’s presence at this year’s Cesar awards was limited to a single nomination for Eva Green’s superb lead performance. In the U.K. this week, it’s one of a few films with which distributors are testing the waters as cinemas gradually reopen. A VOD fate would be a particularly undesirable outcome, given the film’s steely visual beauty and densely textured sonic tapestry, led by a marvelous, modernist Ryuichi Sakamoto score. For Winocour, doubling down on 2015’s slinky, neon-flecked suspenser “Disorder,” it confirms that she has the sensuous imagination and efficiency for any genre project, of any scale, that will have her.
It’s hard not to sense some directorial empathy on Winocour’s part with her protagonist Sarah (Green), a gifted, ambitious woman who has to persistently prove her competence in her chosen field, where male colleagues’ skills are taken as a fait accompli. Having nurtured star-gazing dreams since she was a child, Sarah has been working diligently toward reaching the International Space Station for years, balancing her career progress with equally dedicated duties as single mother to her bright, devoted seven-year-old daughter Stella (remarkable first-timer Zélie Boulant-Lemesle).
When, following another astronaut’s withdrawal, she’s suddenly, unexpectedly offered a place on the European Space Agency’s Mars probe, Sarah accepts without hesitation — despite the fact that it will entail a year-long separation from Stella. Following your dreams sounds simpler than practically enabling them to be realized, yet this is rarely a moral burden that has been placed on cinema’s sizable crew of stoic space dads: “Proxima” intelligently poses the question of whether proving the culmination of your ambitions to your children is worth sacrificing your time with them, and doesn’t arrive at pat, teachable answers.
If Sarah’s hitherto full-time parenting only underlines how hard she’s had to commit to her grueling space training, that doesn’t prevent her male counterparts — led by Matt Dillon’s typically rugged, rock-jawed American captain — from seeing her motherhood as a weakness, as they patronizingly suggest a lighter workload for her. Winocour’s script, co-written with Jean-Stéphane Bron, is keenly perceptive regarding the unconscious bias and sexist microaggressions that women face even in supposedly progressive workplaces, but it doesn’t strain to make its feminist point by rendering Sarah some blandly unflappable superwoman: She’s permitted to fail, to act out, and to sometimes let her emotions get the better of her, en route to her objective.
Green is an inspired choice to play this equally flawed and fantastic heroine, and rewards the risk with the gutsiest work of her career, matching written-in-the-eyes emotional candor to toughly tested physicality. Too often cast as imposingly alien vamps and villains, the actor has never been this plainly, honestly human on screen, yet the film doesn’t play down her darkly ethereal screen presence either: She’s wholly convincing as a woman torn between loving earthly attachments and a farther place in the cosmos where she’s somehow felt she’s always belonged. There’s sturdy support from Dillon, as well as Lars Eidinger and Sandra Hüller as Stella’s father and agency minder, respectively. Yet “Proxima” remains mostly a tender, intuitive duet between Green and Boulant-Lemesle, piercingly vulnerable but never too precious as a girl pivoting irregularly between supportive pride in her mother and gaping terror at her absence.
The unvarnished authenticity of the writing and performances is matched by Winocour’s and DP Georges Lechaptois’ muscular, lucid shooting style, and benefits heavily from on-location work at the ESA’s Cologne facility, and later at Star City in Moscow — where Sarah is forced to enter quarantine, a phase of the film that, inevitably, lands rather differently now than it did nearly a year ago. Many of “Proxima’s” loveliest scenes amplify essential sensations of touch, be it the tickle of a ladybug crawling across one’s skin, a mother and daughter’s floating caress in a still, luminescent swimming pool, or the phantom contact of two hands separated by an austere pane of glass. Sarah knows she’ll miss these tactile details as soon as she’s soaring miles above them, but she has to find out what sensations lie beyond her realm of experience. “I’m becoming a space person, I’ve let space invade me,” she explains to her daughter, not voicing her uncertainty as to whether space will ever leave her, or her it.