The last few years have seen a surprising amount of releases intent on dissecting the relationship between an astronaut and their child. It’s easy to see why – it’s fertile ground for grand thematic explorations of abandonment, distance and connection. Everyone feels something along these lines toward the idea of their parents, even if it is a distinct lack thereof.
But in films like Interstellar, First Man and Ad Astra it’s always Dad who goes to outer space. If it’s not enough that women have been restricted to the domestic sphere and locked out of the room where it happens throughout much of the course of history, they’ve been chained to the ground as well. Space, that incomprehensibly infinite void, is as historically masculine as any other professional workspace. It’s not even like there isn’t room up there.
It’s refreshing then to not only see an astronaut film with a female protagonist (though last year’s Lucy in the Sky did this too), but also one that tells a story which is, at its very core, reflective of the female experience. In readying herself for a year-long stint at the International Space Station, Sarah Loreau (Eva Green) encounters everything from the physical realities of being a woman in orbit (she chooses to keep menstruating, despite the ‘difficulties’), casual sexism from one of her co-workers, the all-American Mike Shannon (Matt Dillon), and inner turmoil as she struggles to navigate the process of preparing her eight-year-old daughter, Stella (Zélie Boulant), for her coming absence.
Known for her equally enigmatic and unsettling turns as Burton-esque witches, stately queens, or both, Green has never given a performance – ironically, for a space film – so grounded. She attracts a breathtaking amount of empathy for an actor usually so determined to distance herself from her audiences. Matt Dillon, on the other hand, displays great versatility as he walks the line between misogynistic menace and supportive ally. In a touching night trip to a Russian supermarket where the astronauts buy cheap trinkets to send to their kids, we see their toxic chemistry evolve into a friendly one: like that of a brother- and sister-in-arms.
Proxima tracks a journey that’s international as well as interstellar. While Loreau is French, her child’s father is German, and she switches coolly between English and Russian when talking with her colleagues. After she goes to Russia to train and Stella moves to live with her father in Germany, their connection becomes even more fraught because their linguistic relationship suddenly becomes so isolated. French, Stella’s literal mother-tongue, is now solely reduced to brief, stolen moments with her mother over the phone. In one conversation a few weeks after Loreau’s departure, Stella speaks to her mother in German. “You speak German to me now? Stop it, please. Speak to me in French.” “No,” Stella replies in adamance.
There’s a heartbreaking knowledge in the fact that all Stella craves is the communication she’s being denied. She starts picking up sign language in her efforts to talk with the other children in her building, and from behind the jail-like bars of her balcony, she teeters her telescope downwards – towards the Earth, to prospective friends playing – instead of to the stars.
Societally, to be a bad mother is to completely negate a woman’s femininity, so it’s no wonder Loreau feels like she’s turning into something else entirely. “I’m becoming a space person,” she writes on her blog. “I let space invade me.” It’s coded into our thinking that there is no middle ground, that you either follow your own dreams or devote yourself to your child’s. But nearer to Proxima’s close, where we see Loreau break quarantine to give her daughter one last kiss (how very apt), that dividing, compartmentalising wall is broken. “There’s no such thing as a perfect astronaut,” Shannon muses after their patch-up. “Just like there’s no such thing as a perfect mother.”
Proxima is a quiet film, concerned with the intimate, internal moments that precede the most contrastingly epic of odysseys. Yet it’s pregnant with the things it leaves unsaid. That we never see the actual voyage says vast amounts about what really matters in character studies like these – not the overblown melodrama and theatrics that most other space movies eventually submit to, but the innately human emotional subtleties that make the idea of leaving the earth’s atmosphere so foreign in the first place.
Proxima is released on VOD and digital in the US from November 6.