French film “Proxima” is a calm and modest character study about one female astronaut trying to deal with a very demanding circumstance. While phlegmatically observing her professional and personal struggles, the movie delicately explores its main subjects including gender roles and expectations, and its heroine’s emotional journey turns out to be quite poignant thanks to the quiet but strong lead performance at its center.
Eva Green, a charismatic French actress who has steadily advanced since she captured our attention in “Casino Royale” (2006), plays Sarah Loreau, a French astronaut who happens to be selected for replacing one of the three members of an upcoming space mission. As a woman who has always aspired to go up to the space since she was a little girl, Sarah is certainly excited about this unexpected opportunity, and she is ready to participate in the training sessions along with the other astronauts of this very important space mission, which will be quite long and demanding but may lead to another major breakthrough in the human history of space exploration.
However, there is one personal issue in her private life. Since her recent divorce with her German astronomical physicist husband Thomas (Lars Eidinger), she has raised her little daughter Stella (Zélie Boulant-Lemesle) alone for a while, but now she has to have her ex-husband take care of her daughter instead, and she cannot help but feel conflicted about that. It goes without saying that Stella is happy to see her mother getting a chance of going up to the space, but Sarah will not be around her for more than one year at least, and she naturally becomes concerned about whether her daughter will be all right during her long absence.
At least, Sarah gets enough support and help from others around her. While he is a little reluctant at first, Thomas agrees to take their daughter to his current residence, and Sarah and Stella often talk with each other on the phone as Sarah embarks on the training sessions at a big space program center in Russia along with her fellow astronauts including Mike Shannon (Matt Dillon), an American astronaut who does not seem to be that nice to her at first but gradually comes to show compassion and understanding behind his stoic façade.
Nevertheless, as diligently and rigorously going through numerous tests and training sessions, Sarah comes to have more doubt on herself, and she finds herself struggling a lot to balance herself between her profession and her private life. Like many other girls around her age, Stella has a number of troubles as growing up day by day, and she often wants to interact more with her mother even when Sarah is quite occupied with her work. As time goes by, Sarah comes to sense the growing distance between her and her daughter, and that impression remains same as before even when her daughter is allowed to visit her at one point later in the story.
While never overemphasizing Sarah’s accumulating emotional conflicts, the screenplay by director Alice Winocour and her co-writer Jean-Stéphane Bron slowly generates emotional tension beneath the surface, and it also pays considerable attention to the rigid procedures through which Sarah and other astronauts go at the space program center. Besides participating in those physically demanding training sessions, they also discuss a lot on every detail of their space mission, and we are reminded again of how risky space missions are in many aspects. Anything can happen at any moment in the space, and they will have to depend on each other a lot while constantly watchful for any sudden peril coming out of nowhere.
Although its last act feels a little too contrived, the movie is still held well together by Green’s engaging nuanced performance, and Green did a commendable job of subtly conveying to us her character’s complex emotional state. While we never doubt Sarah’s firm will and determination, we also come to sense the deep bond between her and her daughter, and that is exemplified well by a restrained but tender scene where she and her daughter get a chance to have a little private conversation together.
The other main cast members in the film dutifully support Green. While Matt Dillon brings some personality and intensity to his seemingly thankless role, Sandra Hüller, who was memorable in Maren Ade’s Oscar-nominated “Toni Erdmann” (2016), and Lars Eidinger are equally solid in their small supporting roles, and young actress Zélie Boulant-Lemesle ably handles several personal scenes focusing on her character (I particularly enjoyed a sweet and playful moment involved with a neighborhood boy on whom her character happens to have a little crush, by the way).
“Proxima” is the third feature film directed by Winocour, who was the co-writer of Oscar-nominated Turkish film “Mustang” (2015) and recently drew my attention more for her second feature film “Disorder” (2015). While it is calmer and tenderer compared to the electrifying male intensity of “Disorder”, the movie also shows considerable sensitivity and intimacy just like that film as firmly focusing on its story and characters, and that is the main reason why the expected finale, which is then followed by a series of real-life photographs intercut with the end credits, is more powerful than expected. Yes, she does her best as a good mother and astronaut, and her daughter will never forget that – no matter what will happen next.