Proxima (2019) – On demand

The 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.

One Small Step for Woman

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Proxima is a female-centred film, by female director Anna Winocour, about a female astronaut preparing for the pain of separation – from her child and from the earth itself. It’s strikingly different from special effects-heavy films such as Gravity. Proxima concentrates instead on the emotional journey in a female would-be astronaut’s inner space rather than outer space. As such, it translates well from the cinema to the small screen.

French Sarah Loreau (a superb performance by Eva Green, Casino Royale) is on the verge of realising her lifelong 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.

As a single parent now, she’s even been provided with a guardian (Sandra Hüller, Toni Erdmann) for her little daughter, while she’s away. Or in case she doesn’t come back. The film’s bluey-grey colour palette has a melancholic feel from the start. “Will you die before me?” Sarah’s little daughter Stella (Zélie Boulant-Lemesle) asks.

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

As liftoff approaches, Sarah moves from the European Astronaut Centre in Germany, to Moscow and Kazakhstan: the film is shot in the actual locations. Pressure mounts for her between achieving her lifetime ambition and her love for her daughter. She notices every tiny detail around her as if it’s for the last time – the mission is presented as if it could be fatal. Leaving earth is like leaving life.

She finds that she has prepared for everything except the pain of leaving Stella. 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, Clouds of Sils Maria) break her focus and cause slip-ups in training. And by keeping a promise to Stella, she endangers the launch. It was strange to think how different our perception 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, US adventures in space, it’s European and multilingual (English, French, German, Russian).

Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, is remembered in it: the end credits picture other women astronauts with their children. I am ashamed to say I was not aware there had been so many, which sadly proves Proxima’s point.

In 2019, Proxima won the Special Prize of the Jury at the San Sebastián Film Festival and the Platform Prize at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is released on DVD, Blu-ray & digital on 23 November 2020.

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