Producers: Isabelle Madelaine and Emilie Tisné Director: Alice Winocour Screenplay: Alice Winocour and Jean-Stéphane Bron Cast: Eva Green, Zélie Boulant-Lemesle, Matt Dillon, Aleksey Fateev, Lars Eidinger, Sandra Hüller, Trond-Erik Vassal and Nancy Tate Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
In Alice Winocour’s third film, an astronaut training for a year-long stint on the space station, a dry run for a projected mission to Mars (and thus called “Proxima”), must deal with the reality of being separated from her young daughter during her absence. It’s the conflict between her realization of a lifelong dream to go into space and her longing to be close to the girl that provides the emotional heartbeat of “Proxima.”
Sarah Loreau (Eva Green), who lives with her delightful daughter Stella (Zélie Boulant-Lemesle) and their cat Laika (notice the space-related connotations of both names) in Vélizy, has been in astronaut training with the European Space Agency in Köln for some time, but is added to the Proxima mission only after one of the original crew drops out. She has hurriedly made arrangements for Stella to stay with her father Thomas Akerman (Lars Eidinger), from whom she’s amicably separated, for the duration. And Thomas, a member of the EAS staff himself, is pleased to help Sarah fulfill the dream of being an astronaut she’s held since childhood.
Sarah joins the two remaining members of the Proxima team—American Mike Shannon (Matt Dillon) and Russian Anton Ochievski (Aleksey Fateev)—in their rigorous training regimen, which Winocour follows in near-documentary fashion, concentrating on both Sarah’s grueling tests and the strain of separation from Stella, whom she’s able to see occasionally with the aid of sympathetic EAS official Wendy Hauer (Sandra Hüller). But it’s clear that as the time approaches for her mother’s departure to the Space Station, Stella is becoming increasingly distressed over what that will mean for her.
With the move of the team to the facilities at Star City in Moscow prior to transport to Baikonur, Kazakhstan, where the actual liftoff will occur, Sarah’s chances of visiting with Stella in person become even more limited, and at times conflicts occur: on one occasion the lead trainer abruptly replaces her with Jürgen (Trond-Erik Vassal), her potential replacement, when she arrives late to a roll-call. Initially the attitude of her colleagues Mike and Anton also seems condescending to her; it’s only over time that they bond, and there’s an indication that the men too have separation issues—Mike will be leaving behind two young sons with his wife (Nancy Tate) and Anton has a sick mother whom he won’t see for a year.
Thus far the film has worked remarkably well. Green is superb in terms of both the role’s physical demands and its emotional ones, and Boulant-Lemesle matches her amazingly; one is genuinely pained to watch how both are affected when the girl grows closer to Wendy over the course of Sarah’s training and feels somewhat abandoned. The supporting cast is also excellent, with Dillon and Fateev standing out as Mike and Anton grow closer to Sarah when she proves her loyalty to them in front of administrators, but Eidinger and Hüller are expert as well. (One might regret the disappearance of Laika after the opening reels, though.)
The technical side is remarkable too, with Florian Sanson’s production design enhanced by the fact that the shoot was conducted on actual locations and Georges Lechaptois’ cinematography luminously crisp. There’s also a deeply satisfying, mostly elegiac score by Ryuichi Sakamota that goes rousing when required.
Unfortunately after so much excellence—including editing by Julien Lacheray that joins the different plot threads together admirably—a ridiculous plot turn late in the game endangers not only Sarah’s fondest dream—and even worse, the mission as a whole—but the film itself, all apparently to suggest that, to employ an old adage, she can have it all when Stella is unable to reach the launch site before her mother goes into final quarantine. When they are forced to say their final goodbyes across a glass partition, Sarah decides on a reckless and dangerous course of conduct that strains credulity past the breaking point, especially since it has no consequences.
That’s a pity, because up to then “Proxima” has been so good. Unfortunately the final twist, which is intended to clinch the film’s dramatic power, instead radically undermines it—a miscalculation that can’t be rectified by the literally uplifting finale that follows.