WHAT DO YOU tell your small daughter when you are a brilliant engineer and astronaut, and the opportunity of a lifetime comes your way? Of course, being the mother (not father) to said eight-year-old, throws the whole monster of generations of sexism to the fore. This is what you will encounter in Alice Winocour’s carefully made film Proxima, which features on this year’s European Film Festival in South Africa. Due to the ongoing pandemic, the entire festival is available online and most of it without cost from 12-22 November.
Sarah (Eva Green) is a serious, earnest and talented French scientist. She’s also a single mom. She’s in the kind of quandary specific to her gender and the way in which the contemporary world still turns. Had she been a man, the acknowledgement of the importance of her relationship with her daughter Stella (Zélie Boulant) would not have made even the footnotes of this story. While Proxima is a fictional work, it is based on the lives of many women astronauts who have travelled far above the earth.
The story is constructed with the brutal muscularity of science and the unforgiving physical toughness of learning to deal with all the things that outer space will do to the inner workings of the human body. It reflects the forum as a crass men’s club on one level, where insensitive remarks and grotesque insults can and do get flung around the locker room, and a formidable training camp on the other, with scant room for a mother’s touch or the hug of a little girl who struggles with maths and has a cat named Laika.
The work is not flawless. There is a red herring around a wound that feels forced and gratuitously illustrative and another issue where military-like quarantine protocol is outwitted with sleight of movement deep in the night. But as the plot unfolds with its maturely formed denouement, narrative blips are forgiven in this work which is as much about a child’s resilience as it is about the grit a woman (especially) needs to follow her calling.
There are times, as you watch this, when you might recall the Syrian documentary For Sama, which portrays the struggle a woman war correspondent with a baby has to confront the horrors of Aleppo, where death hangs around every corner. It does in Proxima too, but with an unspoken intensity that sizzles just under the radar all the time, particularly in the child’s sensibilities and response.
And that, effectively, is where the bulk of the kudos for this work must land – in the casting of this work, and the child’s performance, which lifts it from being a platitudinous feminist whine into something about where the sun goes to sleep at night, or how another planet has currency in our own sense of possibility.
- Proxima is directed by Alice Winocour and features a cast headed by Manuela Aguzzi, Zélie Boulant, Grégoire Colin, Matt Dillon, Lars Eidinger, Aleksey Fateev, Lionel Ferra, Igor Filippov, Bastien François, Rémy François, Eva Green, Sandra Hüller, Vitaly Jay, Delcho Koprivshki, Svetlana Nekhoroshikh, Alexis Nouhra, Raphaël Nouhra, Thomas Pesquet, Anna Sherbinina, Nancy Tate and Trond-Erik Vassal. Written by Alice Winocour and Jean-Stéphane Bron, it is produced by Serge Hayat, Isabelle Madelaine and Emilie Tisné and features creative input by Ryuichi Sakamoto (music), Georges Lechaptois (cinematography), Julien Lacheray (editing), Anaïs Duran (casting), Florian Sanson (production design) and Pascaline Chavanne and Fanny Rappange (costumes). In French, German and Russian with English subtitles, it is part of the 7th European Film Festival South Africa, screening online and without cost from 12-22 November 2020.