My first trip back to cinemas was to see Alice Winocour’s Proxima at the end of July. That trip didn’t go to plan, you can read about it here. On first watch Winocour’s relationship drama felt like a discussion of compassion, empathy and understanding all through various forms of communication. I assumed the subtitles would provide some much needed context, the real story behind these characters words. What I discovered however is that Proxima remains largely unchanged with the addition of understandable dialogue, it might have a more focused discussion of gender but most of the strong emotional beats it hits feel earned even without dialogue.
Telling the story of French astronaut Sarah (Eva Green) and her daughter Stella (Zélie Boulant) and how they adjust to the fact that in a few short months Sarah is leaving for a year long mission aboard the International Space Station. When she has to leave for training both have to adjust to a life where the other is constantly out of reach, almost a practice run for when Sarah finally leaves. While Sarah struggles with the emotional adjustment that her male counterparts seem to breeze through, Stella pulls away from her increasingly absent mother.
Despite tenderly depicting a slowly fracturing mother/daughter relationship, Proxima is a film about communication and understanding above all else. Multilingual Sarah spends most of the film flipping between French, German, Russian and English across a film that globe trots in equal measure, Sarah usually ends up the person in the room that comprehends the most of what people are saying, while never really understanding or communicating properly. While mother and daughter are trying to understand each other while avoiding talking about it, Sarah is also trying to learn about her new teammates, the two men she is going to be spending all her time with up on the station. At first, team leader Mike (Matt Dillon) comes across as a sexist, pompous stereotype, an American hero who has all the answers.
Winocour wants you to be wrong in your assumptions the same way Sarah is because she wants you to learn the same way Sarah is, not to put your money where your mouth is without getting all the facts, to see the other side of the coin. Despite Sarah and Stella’s similarly inquisitive natures it is their perspectives that are constantly shifting and Winocour uses her camera and her choice of shots to bring this expanding gap into frame. Be it Sarah running vertically in a treadmill, running up to the stars or Stella spying on kids playing on the ground with her telescope, staring at the ground below her instead of the sky above. Each is looking for what they want and not thinking of the other. You are placed in the middle, seeing it all unfold, hoping for Sarah to truly see her daughter, to understand the right way to explain it to her.
The acknowledgement that Sarah wants from Stella isn’t what we are hoping for, and this failure in expectations makes for an empathetic film where the true goal is understanding, not the illusive and non existant acceptance that Sarah craves. While Winocour highlights the rarity of female astronauts and the pressure society puts on them for leaving their kids behind, her eye is also on Mike, who doesn’t struggle in the same way. That might be because his story is behind closed doors, adjacent to Sarah’s, but it could also be that this is a story of mothers and daughters and this bond is unique to them. We assume his struggle is easier to handle but assumptions are exactly what Proxima wants to beat out of you.
Despite the many video diaries, letters and voicemails that permeate the silence of Proxima, this is a quiet film, one that says more with a gesture or a shared experience than with a monologue. Moments when Stella and Sarah look out into the horizon or at something they both marvel at, this does more to bring them closer together than any dialogue could. Proxima is full of these memorable but tiny moments, the kind that are indellible but forgettable at the same time and both Green and Boulant juice them for everything they are worth. While the whole journey is one of inherent sadness, a long goodbye where pride and happiness are mixed into the shared stillness.
While there is no denying that Proxima is a slow feature, it is carefully constructed, naturally shot and constantly focused on Sarah’s understanding of the changing relationships around her. Winocour weaves a personal story into a science fiction trapping about being able to admit when you don’t understand the intricacies of those around you, including those closest to you. With some breathtaking cinematography and a willingness to take its time and let her performers bridge the gaps in the peace and quiet, Winocour has constructed one of the years most intimate films.