Proxima (2019)

The superbly focused French female astronaut in woman-centred Proxima directed by Anna Winocour is torn apart by the conflict between needing the freedom to achieve and the pain of separation from her daughter.


by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Proxima is a female-centred film, by female director Anna Winocour, about an astronaut preparing for the pain of separation – from her child and from the earth itself. Shot in bluey-greys, it has a melancholic feel from the start. “Will you die before me?” Sarah’s little daughter Stella – significant name – (Zélie Boulant-Lemesle) asks. Even their pet cat is called Laika.

French Sarah Loreau (Eva Green) is on the verge of realising her childhood ambition – to go into space. She’ll be living on the international space station for a year. She is superbly ready, physically and mentally. She’s as fit and honed as Ripley, an engineer, and has internalised the manuals. She’s even been provided with a guardian for her daughter (Sandra Hüller, Toni Erdmann).

Shot like a documentary, we see her putting her body through hell in the final, gruelling training sessions of weightlessness simulations in a centrifuge and underwater. Of course there’s inherent sexism. Her American colleague (Matt Dillon) welcomes her aboard as, being a French woman, she’ll be a good cook; the other is Russian (Aleksey Fateev). But both these characters develop in a surprising way.

As liftoff approaches, Sarah moves from the European Astronaut Centre in Germany, to Siberia and the launch site in Kazakhstan: the film is shot in the actual locations. Pressure mounts between achieving her lifetime ambition and love for her daughter. Leaving earth is like leaving life. She has never felt so attached to the Earth as she does now: she is torn between the freedom of liftoff and achieving her life’s ambition that she craves, and life with her daughter, where her mother love now feels like gravity pulling her towards the Earth.

She notices every little detail around her with great intensity as if she’s seeing it for the last time – the mission is presented as if it could be fatal. Her premonition of loss is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s elegaic sonnet:

‘This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.’

She’s prepared for everything except the pain of leaving Stella, of cutting the cord with her and, implicitly, with the Earth. It’s a life in reverse – a child should leave its parent, the parent should not leave the child. Phone calls with Stella (and her separated but supportive husband – Lars Eidinger) break her focus and cause slip-ups in training. And by keeping a promise to Stella, she takes a secret action that could endanger the launch. It was strange to see this and realise how different our perceptions of the importance of quarantine are now, after Covid.

Proxima is a unique and fascinating take on space travel, never seen on film before, well-acted, though perhaps a bit clunky in places. Unlike Nasa-ish adventures in space, it’s European and multilingual (English, French, German, Russian). Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, is remembered in it: stay for the end credits, which celebrate other women astronauts with their children. I am ashamed to say I did not know there had been so many.

Proxima is released on 31 July 2020 in the UK.