Tuesday 4 August 2020

Shoot the moon: "Proxima"

Some films grab you with five words. Proxima is "Eva Green as an astronaut", a prospect to send the expectations of any sentient human being soaring towards the stratosphere. Ever since the conclusion of Showtime's Penny Dreadful, our movies and TV have taken Ms. Green's talents for granted: you'd only need to catch five minutes of the BBC's recent misbegotten adaptation of The Luminaries - which tossed her in the mud of the new New Zealand, an exotic question mark in a perilously silly hat - to recognise that. Proxima's promising writer-director Alice Winocour has the right idea, thankfully. She repositions Green front-and-centre; she allows her to speak in her native French tongue (no more wobbly accents); she gets her to do something that goes beyond looking good on the publicity materials. A big part of what director and star are doing is subverting the enduring screen cliché of the astronaut's wife, a type exemplified by Kathleen Quinlan in Apollo 13, but whose DNA has trickled down to such 21st century characterisations as Caitriona Balfe's Mollie Miles in Le Mans '66: the hausfrau who irons underpants and nervily eyes the telephone while the guys are off exhibiting what the movies have always deemed to be the right stuff. Winocour has troubled to separate these roles out. Green's Sarah is an astronaut and a wife (ex-wife, specifically), striving to square her intergalactic ambitions (as an engineer headed to training at a Russian space camp) with her earthly responsibilities as the mother to a young daughter, Stella (Zélie Boulant); she's a woman suspended between the vast embrace of her beloved universe and the smallness of the child she adores.

If nothing else, that ensures Proxima offers a balancing perspective to the boysiness of James Gray's Ad Astra, where that same universe provided a cosmic baseball field on which a distant father and son could toss their issues back-and-forth. (It seemed an especially long distance to travel, when one party could have simply picked up a phone.) Winocour doesn't have Gray's 21st Century Fox budget to work with, though she avails herself of the kind of sturdy supporting cast (Matt Dillon, Lars Eidinger, Sandra Hüller) that comes with international co-production money. Instead, she remains resolutely grounded, using those resources to expand the scope of the atmospheric, hummingbird-sensitive realism she set out in her 2015 breakthrough Disorder. She shoots in ordinary locations (well, ordinary if you're an astronaut), but her filters, and an ambient Ryuichi Sakamoto score, brings us within easy touching distance of sci-fi. What really interests Winocour about this story isn't up there in the galaxy, however, but right here on Earth, and it's a quandary you wouldn't have had to train long months at NASA to have pondered in your time. Is it possible to have it all, family and career, the moon and the stars? And if so, which sacrifices, if any, would be worth making to get there? Anyone expecting Proxima to pit Eva against space pirates or space chimps, as Brad Pitt squared up to in the course of Ad Astra, is bound to be disappointed. Winocour's film is at heart a workplace drama, albeit one with taller horizons than the conventional glass ceiling. This time, the sky's the limit.

Not having to deliver IMAX-ready spectacle frees Winocour to flesh out that thematic strand that connected the slambang aspects of Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity to its pulsing emotional core. She makes vivid, affecting connections between Sarah's work up there and her role down here, the better to suggest that bringing a rocket down safely requires much the same preparation and care as bringing a child up. To an extent, motherhood here means passing down what Sarah's learnt on the job, as in the advice she gives during a call home to the distraught Stella: "You know what happens. If you panic, it's worse. But if you focus, you can do it." Stranger parallels are established in a montage that cuts between children on a merry-go-round and astronauts spinning in a centrifuge; at one point, we see Sarah sitting in an upright foetal position in a womb-like capsule being filled with fluids, and describing the changes likely to happen to her body while she's up in space. Here, Winocour seems to be floating the idea that Sarah, like Stella, is herself a work-in-progress, someone being schooled to ascend to the next level. As any rock biographer could attest - and this is the source of the film's internal tensions, its tougher choices - wide-eyed naivety is rarely a reassuring quality in a parent, the people we tend to look to as our bedrocks, and as a source of established knowledge. How does anyone find time to pay attention to a child when they're still trying to make their own way in (and, in Sarah's case, out of) this world?

The way the film answers that - and it does, at the last, answer it affirmatively - has a lot to do with the way Winocour works her leading lady. Of late, directors have tended to leave Green to her own devices - they've cast her to play Eva Green - so it's barely a surprise that she should have been seen to drift away with the fairies in so many roles, resembling no earthly creature at all. Here, it's soon clear she's been very closely and precisely directed. (With good reason: the camera rarely leaves her side, whether she's up in the air or several fathoms underwater.) From the opening sequence, in which a harnessed-up Sarah pounds a vertical treadmill, this Green is tethered, monitored, switched-on, plugged-in; subject to such intense observation, her tics diminish, and some of her old needling, combative intelligence returns. (She forms a nicely spiky relationship with Dillon, in one of his self-mocking roles as the kind of meathead space movies have typically lionised.) She can still do girlish, which reminds us she was young when the movies discovered her in the first years of this century: she wears her hair in a sixth-former's ponytail, and cries when she hurts her leg. But she also exhibits a newfound warmth, which Winocour promptly uses to seal the case she's making: she demonstrates, almost scientifically, that Sarah has the right stuff to be a great explorer and a great mother. If Proxima takes a slight narrative stumble towards the end - bear in mind NASA reprimanded John Young for smuggling the possible contamination of a corned beef sandwich aboard Gemini 3 - it continually makes emotional sense. If we see astronauts as ambassadors of Earth - representatives of our best and brightest - then why wouldn't we send Eva Green up there eventually? The only concern right now would be whether she'd have any good reason to come back.

Proxima is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

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