Savina Petkova on Alice Winocour’s ‘Proxima’ (2019)
Can a body still remain a body if strapped in hi-tech gear, suspended in the air with wires and cords, with a robotic extension covering the arm to the tip of the fingers? Should the body of a woman, moreover, hold up to different standards? The dislocation of identity split between professional and personal life seems to be the stake of Proxima, Alice Winocour’s latest feature. The film opens to a training sequence of a cyborg Sarah (Eva Green), but then cuts to the intimate event of a mother bathing her daughter. Stella (Zélie Boulant), whose name indicatively means “star”, is a curious eight-year-old that already treats her mum’s “goodnight” as a “goodbye”, humorously referring to bedtime kisses as “first and second stage separation”, as space rockets do.
As a film-tribute to all the women astronauts, Proxima pays close attention to the gender dynamics of this specifically male-dominated field, bearing in mind the underrepresentation of female scientists in general. Not withholding its politics, the film tackles sexism explicitly in the actions and passing comments made by coworkers, the ex-husband, and commanders. Sarah, being the only female member of the crew, is constantly susceptible to condescending remarks from Mike (Matt Dillon) regarding her looks, physical strength, or parental choices. Proxima is deeply engaged in delivering long-overdue screen representation; namely that of female performativity: the conflict in parallel life roles between the professional and the familial. There is an underlying and rather solid idea of what makes a woman, against which Proxima pushes back. It echoes in the media’s attention towards Sarah as a token “woman astronaut”, in the desire to give her less workload because “she’s a woman”, and in the latent judgements by social worker Wendy (Sandra Hüller) about her relationship with Stella.
Splitting its screen time in two, Proxima attends to both the mother and the daughter’s solitary moments, isolating touching images, souvenirs of their relationship: be it Stella’s own telescope, her mother’s scent over an old t-shirt, or even the ginger cat, named Laika (what’s a space movie without a cat anyway?). Equally considerate of both sides of the relation that seems less and less susceptible to ready-made codes and interpretation keys, the camera preserves an objective stance, as it lets the unspoken emotional tension claw its way into the spectator’s heart. Tuned to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s elegiac score, several ruptures of sentiment are channelled through calm, looks of longing exchanged between the pair.
Eva Green’s performance is equal parts stoic and translucent. The emotional turmoil plays out on her face, close-ups tracing the systole and diastole of feelings that reconfigure her features. From the silent smiles she sends to the stars when gazing upwards, the nervous look away after putting on a glossy photocall smile, and the wandering eyes that constantly gesture towards the offscreen space, all of these testify to her mind being elsewhere. A gradual detachment from work routine is apparent in both her training performance and ability to speak: her voice keeps breaking over the phone, the spoken sentences getting shorter, with an accumulation of pauses. On the other hand, an infected wound on Sarah’s leg refuses to heal, causing her the only tears we see dripping from her eyes throughout the nearly two-hour runtime, making a case for both spirit and body in suffocating agony, the pain of letting go.
From the outset, the film’s narrative seems governed by time: time remaining and time elapsed. Without any clocks to keep track of, the characters make note of weeks, days, and minutes remaining until the international space mission “Proxima” commences. A separation so grave, that between mother and daughter has yet to be catalogued in a trope, whereas father-son/daughter relationships govern many of the recent space-related titles, such as Interstellar (2014), High Life (2018), First Man (2018), or Ad Astra (2019). What the novelty of Proxima shows best, the mother-in-space model set aside, is that one does not need to leave the Earth to make an excellent space film. In focusing on the preparation stage leading up to the take-off, Winocour’s deft directorial decision confirms that the journey one undertakes is, before all, an interior one, shared between traveler and loved ones.
Proxima screened as part of the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2020 and is screening in UK cinemas now.