"Proxima," a new movie by French writer-director Alice Winocour, is relatively subtle in its consideration of the status of women in international space exploration. Still, some of the facts it offers up are inevitably pointed. Take, for example, the story of Russian astronaut Valentina Tereshkova, who, in 1963, became the first woman in space (and the first to make the trip solo). Her reward for this hefty contribution to Soviet space propaganda? "They named a crater on the dark side of the moon after her," says one character in the film. (There's a little more to this bald factoid, but it serves its purpose.)
"Proxima" is more than just a litany of gender injustices. In relating the story of a fictitious French astronaut named Sarah Loreau (Eva Green), the picture takes pains to illustrate the extent of international cooperation involved in the ongoing space project. (Much of the film was shot at the German branch of the European Space Agency, in Cologne, and at the Star City facility outside of Moscow.) And while the story is told mainly in English, there are also rich seams of French, Russian and German running through it.
But more interesting than the examples of sex-specific annoyances offered up here (female astronauts who choose to consider menstruating for the duration of their flight will be provided an allotment of tampons — but it will be deducted from their baggage allowance) is the imaginative connection the movie makes between space travel and maternal concerns.
Sarah is the single mother of a 7-year-old daughter named Stella (the gifted Zelie Boulant). Her ex-husband, Thomas (Lars Eidinger), is, refreshingly, not a sullen creep. He's also in the space business (he's an astrophysicist), and he loves his daughter and has an affectionate regard for his ex-wife, too. Sarah has been offered a major new position as the only female member of a rocket crew setting out for a final test run before a full-scale flight to Mars. There's also a major catch: This project would be the fulfillment of a childhood dream — but it would also separate Sarah from Stella (who has serious learning disabilities) for a year. "I've trained for so long to leave Earth," she says, "and now that it's time to go, I've never felt so attached to it."
This is, of course, not a bind in which male astronauts — such as Sarah's crewmate, the married dad Mike Shannon (Matt Dillon) — would be likely to find themselves. But she's a can-do kind of woman. She knows the rigors of space travel (the body doesn't sweat or exude tears, and cells will age 40 years in six months), and she's accepted them. "I'm becoming a space person," she says. "I let space invade me."
Unfortunately, to dullards like me, that may sound like a more entertaining premise for a movie than the one on which this picture is grounded. Green has a flair for expressive inwardness, and Dillon supports her well with his trademark warmth. But as admirable as "Proxima" is as an examination of love and dreams and gender constraints, you can't help wishing these two actors were in a different movie together, and that it were without the silly conclusion that's been tacked onto this one.
Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.