Content Note: (critical treatment of) sexism
Sarah (Eva Green) is an astronaut at ESA. Or she hopes to become one – so far, she has been preparing while taking care of her daughter Stella (Zélie Boulant) mostly on her own as she is separated from Stella’s father, astrophycisist Thomas (Lars Eidinger). When Sarah finally gets the call she’s been waiting for, when she is finally assigned a mission, things change quickly and drastically for Sarah and Stella. Sarah has to go to Russia for her mission training, Stella has to move in with Thomas. Both knew this was coming, but living it brings more challenges than expected.
Proxima is a quiet film, focusing on the trivialities of space travel in a way that feels entirely revolutionary and gives it a new, feminine-coded take we very much needed.
We all know the story of the astronaut. He is male, he is extra-ordinary, he is a hero. He is the future, the symbol for humanity itself in its constant quest for more, in its curiosity, in its adaptiveness. And that is exactly the story that Proxima turns on its head. Pivoting away from the masculine-coded heroics, the film focuses instead on the feminine-coded mundanity of space exploration as work – a work that needs to be balanced with a family life.
In the spirit of “the private is political”, the film shows how every part of Sarah’s private life is tied to her career and vice versa. Mike (Matt Dillon), her mission leader, hands off his children to his wife and that is entirely unremarkable. Whereas Sarah’s decision to go on the mission and leave Stella with her father feels much more daring. But the film also makes it clear that it is entirely okay to do it. While care work is the central topic for the film, it is not the only par where Sarah has to face sexism, and prove herself over and over again.
While the film is squarely in Sarah’s corner, it leaves room for complexities and conflicting emotions. Sarah struggles with leaving Stella behind. Stella is hesitant to let her mother go. But they both grow from the separation (wonderfully portrayed by both Green and Boulant). Mike is a sexist in many ways, and Anton (Aleksey Fateev) tries to balance things without ever challenging that sexism. And yet, when you expect things to really go to shit, things take a turn for the better and they actually, and believably, become a team.
At the end there is a scene that will probably divide opinions – I was of two hearts about it myself. Everything to do with quarantines just hits very differently in times of Covid, but at the same time, it was such a satisfying way to bring the story of Sarah and Stella to a good close.
No matter how you feel about the scene, though, I am sure that you’ll leave Proxima a bit richer, with a new perspective on what it means to be an astronaut, and maybe also, what it means to be a hero.