With a few exceptions, cinema has reserved the central role of the astronaut for men. In recent years Sandra Bullock played a grieving mother in Gravity (2013) and Anne Hathaway donned the spacesuit for Interstellar (2014); but Alice Winocour’s ambitious take is emphatically more down to earth and more relatable, as she explores what it is like for a working mother in a male-dominated field.
In this rigorously researched spin on the space movie, Winocour has achieved an astonishing feat for all womankind. It’s a fantastic voyage, shot on location at Star City near Moscow and the European Astronaut Centre at Cologne, which repurposes classic lost-in-space tropes and acts as love letter to working mums who are attempting to balance motherhood with career.
Winocour – director of Augustine (2012) and Disorder (2015) – explores the theme of separation through the mother-daughter relationship, asking female-specific questions that have never been posed in this type of film before. It has a lot in common with Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic First Man (2018), especially in its attentiveness to the detail of the practical pre-launch elements of space travel, but it boldly sets itself apart with its refreshing female perspective.
Sarah (Eva Green) is isolated by her gender, humiliatingly underestimated by her male co-workers. Green plays her as determined yet fragile, occasionally welling up with sadness and the thought of failure.
Her scenes with her daughter Stella (played by Zélie Boulant) are powerful; Winocour’s use of close up on Stella’s saucer-blue eyes as she looks at her mother and then to the skies are deeply emotive, laced with concern and awe. At one point Stella is seen dressed up in white skirt and Ugg boots, happily investigating recreated moon terrain and providing a hopeful illustration of what her mother’s ambition transmits to her impressionable mind. Fatherhood is glimpsed through an obnoxious American astronaut, Mike (Matt Dillon), and his relationship with his sons: it seems that the pressures on mothers whose ambitions might clash with childcare are not much felt by fathers.
Gorgeous, elegantly framed images evoke the experience of being in the womb – one of Sarah embracing Stella in a swimming pool is particularly stirring. Working on multiple levels, Proxima reveals the strength it takes to become untethered from a child. The film closes by paying tribute to women astronauts; but its messages about motherhood and sexism are relevant to any industry.