Conversations about film

February 6, 2021


Directed by Alice Winocour, 2019

Jim Wilson: Jeff, thanks for coming on board this impromptu edition of Collokino. How’s life treating you on Cape Cod?

Jeff Wilson: Well, hello, Jim, great to be back. Just another glorious day here on old CC, tons of wind and rain and the wife’s got the Covid. Other than that, it’s all peaches and cream. Hope you’re having as much fun as I. Um, just a second here, my hockey mask and welding shield just fell off. Ah, there we go, oh crap…

Jim: Ah, Jeff. Welcome. Since you’re my brother, I already know about your bad news, so won’t belabor it here. You know my thoughts are constantly with you and Lise, hoping everything stays manageable.

Though most Collokinos are about a film my guest brings to discuss, it was me who insisted we talk about Proxima. I like doing newer films with you, instead of the “classics” angle I take with other guests, and this seemed like an excellent candidate.

Although it originally premiered at Toronto in September of 2019, Proxima wasn’t released commercially in the US until November 2020, so it feels like a newish film. Written and directed by Alice Winocour, it’s a mostly French production, but has a strong international flavor to it, with dialogue in French, German, English and Russian, and performers from as many places. It tells the story of Sarah Loreau, a French astronaut training for a long mission as final preparation for an impending mission to Mars. The film’s central concern is the relationship between Sarah and her eight-year-old daughter Stella, which is strained by her status as a single Mom, the long periods of training that keep the two apart, and the looming year-long separation between them while Sarah is aboard the ISS.

Eva Green plays Sarah, as natural a role as any I’ve seen her play. Sarah’s daughter Stella is brought to life by the amazing talents of the young Zélie Boulant. Supporting Green and Boulant are Matt Dillon as the American mission commander Mike Shannon, Aleksey Fateev as their fellow Russian crewmate Anton, Lars Eidinger as Stella’s German father and Sarah’s ex-husband Thomas (who Winocour assigns the last name of Akerman, I’ll casually point out), and Sandra Hüller as Wendy, a family liaison officer for the European space agency. That’s a pretty awesome cast for such a humble picture, which indicates to me they all recognized this as something special they wanted to be a part of, and I love them all the more for it. Also, you may have noticed that Sarah’s physician is played by the great Grégoire Colin, who indirectly appears exactly thrice.

Let’s start with general impressions. Did you like this film? Would you recommend it to others?

Jeff: Well, I’ll throw a curveball and just start by answering the question: YES. I did like the film and, YES, I would recommend it to “some” others. I will expand by saying I really got it and enjoyed it more the second time around, I also watched it that second time with my wife Lise and she loved it. As a mother she was moved by the personal struggles of Sarah and daughter Stella to deal with the upcoming separation. I was able to center on what the film is really about as opposed to during my initial viewing – waiting for the “space” stuff to happen. As an old sci-fi geek, (How old were we when Dad agreed to drag us to Alien? 13-15?) I always have an initial negative reaction when an apparent sci-fi film never “lifts-off” till the end, aaagghh. Thing is, this is a totally different film than that. It’s about the build-up, the anxiety, the endless training and the battle within over “what’s right for me/what’s right for them”.

Jim: Oh, it’s even easier than that. I’ll argue it’s a gorgeous visual poem about permanence and love, and that’s all. The arc of the story between Stella (that name!) and her Mom is singular. Where it leads is what’s fun to talk about.

But first, the science fiction thing. You really thought this was gonna go into space?

 Jeff: Well, yeah, to some extent. As usual, I came at this film with literally no pre-knowledge of it. There’re astronauts, suits, and a ship, so…

But as I’ve stated, I got over it, and yes, this is a beautiful film with a deep-core central story about sacrifice versus worth. A story written every day by working mothers (and even some dads). But what really makes this film work is the grace and unbiased view of all this worked by Winocour. The easy, subtle flow and the quiet underpinnings of anxious energies within everyone, that relentlessly rolls throughout the film, really grabbed me; combined with the remarkable performances by Eva Green, Zelie Boulant and Sandra Hüller in particular. My favorite “secondary” character/role dynamic was that of Mike Shannon (Dillon) and Sarah and how it plays out during the film, largely because it’s so refreshing and veers from the cookie-cutter norm. 

I’m curious of your take on it first, if I may be so bold. 

Jim: Bold you may be.

You mean the Sarah-Mike relationship, right?  The dynamic between these two astronauts, both of whom will be conducting a hugely important project to establish protocols for a manned mission to Mars, is one of mutual respect, but with deeply embedded strains of resentment, so it’s always on the verge of exploding. And when it does, it’s equivocal. As professional rivals, Mike and Sarah are always at an uneasy parity. Neither is delusional about the other. It’s like, I suspect, how most people deal with professional rivals.

Which is my essential argument about Proxima, that it’s decidedly not about drama, but about what’s commonplace, about continuity and steady things that can be relied on. Proxima is pointedly undramatic, which fascinates me, since that mostly observational perspective leans in the direction of what is evident, not invented. Proxima is grounded like a documentary, though its core is anchored in performance.

What’s your take on Sarah’s relationship with her crewmates?

Jeff: Thanks so much for answering, good man.

I felt the relationship between the three of them was… I’ll go again with refreshing. And very seated in the reality of the jobs they are performing, that they are extremely rational, intelligent, confident people. So, unlike many films where the Russian cosmonaut Anton would assuredly be portrayed as a menacing robotic Cossack, in this film he’s actually the kindest and most likeable; the peacemaker. Mike, who starts our relationship with him as referencing Sarah’s greatest contribution as the newest member of mission may be that she’s a French woman and could cook on the ISS (ha). As the film progresses and there are more interactions between Mike and Sarah, your initial impressions of him as the US jughead of the mission are dispelled, and you realize it’s his way of sizing up Sarah, figuring out how she works, all so he can best make sure that she is ready for the mission. The depth written into his character is just cherished by me because it is so rarely executed. This film isn’t about one person, the writing isn’t all biased towards supporting one side, or character. It’s about showing how real situations and real decisions are struggled with and figured out by sane, intelligent people.

One of my favorite visual scenes of the film is when the three of them are practicing water landing in a nearby lake, while Wendy and Stella are watching. The flare from the capsule on the lake, the breeze across the water, and then when they come out of the water and walk over, Sarah in her giant space suit approaching tiny Stella on the beach of a small lake, something about that shot just sticks with me. I’m trying to segue into talking about Wendy’s character and thus the Stella-Sarah relationship, so… there it is, there’s the segue… do you see it? Hello, is there anybody out there?

Jim: I’m here, buddy. Fear not. You’re absolutely right about the dynamic between Sarah, Mike and Anton. On my first watch, I have to say my heart sank a little thinking that Dillon’s Mike was going to be another chauvinistic American fool, but that is, as you say, quickly dispelled. I give Dillon a lot of kudos for executing some tricky contradictions in his character. For instance, he makes several stereotypical references to Sarah being French. Including the one you mentioned above, he says she must like rare meat, and says that thing about her growing up singing “Frère Jacques”. It’s easy to think of him as a complete prick, which to a degree he is, but the film also allows him to be more complicated than just the stuff that comes out of his mouth, which Dillon does a great job portraying in a subtle and minimal way. Clearly, as you say, Mike is figuring her out, sizing her up, by pushing buttons he knows, or assumes, she’ll push back against, something a good crew commander would do in preparation for a long mission when they will need to know how to sustain agreeable relations with one another.

In that same way, the film, or Winocour’s writing and direction, encourages us to look past the moments of conflict and trouble, to the silent moments we don’t see when things settle down and return to equilibrium. It really is one of two things I love about Proxima, that even as it portrays difficulties, setbacks and various problems, none of it ever results in dramatic fractures. I think of the scene when the three are survival camping in the woods, and Mike twists his ankle. When one of their minders radios to see how they’re doing, they make no mention of it, effectively preventing a little thing, as worrisome as it is for them at that moment, from getting blown out of proportion. This is not only a stylistic choice Winocour makes with her narrative, but is also a critical goal for the mission itself, to keep all drama to an absolute minimum.

So tell me about Wendy. Sandra Hüller, who we both recently enjoyed in Sibyl, embodies another supporting role here, looking after Stella when she visits her Mom during training. What are your thoughts on Wendy?

Jeff: Oh yes, Wendy. OK, hey, is this plugged in? Can everyone hear me? Oh good.

Sorry, that damn orangutan keeps unplugging all my shit.

Yeah, Wendy is an integral character in this film, played ever so adeptly by the wonderful Sandra Hüller. Yes, Sibyl, that’s where I remember her from, thanks. Her official job is that of something like the family liaison, there to help Sarah and Stella deal with not just their current time apart, as Sarah goes off to Russia for deeper training in the build up to launch time, but also to start getting used to the idea of being apart for the year that Sarah will be aboard the ISS. This, of course, is the central story/concept being looked at in this film. At first Wendy is viewed by Sarah as a bit of a “formality,” I guess I’ll say, while Stella, of course, is a bit cautious of this new person. But with incredible patience and grace, Wendy assuredly assimilates herself into their lives, not just helping Sarah deal with Stella’s moods and her leaving to live with her father(separated) but by becoming a true friend to Stella by truly caring. In fact, as things build up and Sarah struggles deeper with balancing the training with trying to find time to even talk to her daughter, Wendy becomes essentially Stella’s surrogate and confidant. The scene where Sarah finally gets home late after having had a fight with Stella, and finds the two of them asleep, cuddled in Stella’s bed, is yet another one of the refreshing overtures executed by Winocour. Instead of having Sarah get all jealous, insecure Tigress here, you get just a tiny glimpse of that in Sarah’s eyes (so well done many times by Eva in this film), and then she moves past it, and as Wendy awakens, sensing this exact dynamic and begins to explain it, Sarah is gracious to her, able to overcome her primal reaction with a “it’s actually awesome you’re here to help” one. As moments like this accrue, Wendy is seen by Sarah, Stella, and you as a natural, necessary piece in the puzzle of figuring out how to get Sarah and Stella to a psychological space where they can get through this whole adventure with some chance of a functioning relationship. A little thing I picked up along the way was you’ll notice that anytime Sarah sees Wendy show up in a meeting/training room she immediately looks to her and knows it’s something to do with Stella and gets the pensive, worried look, especially the withering look of devastation when Wendy tells her that Dad and Stella have missed their flight to see her one final time before quarantine. 

So what were your favorite Wendy moments, bro? And what about the Cat, the Newts and the Horses? (Isn’t that a C.S. Lewis book?)

Jim: Yes, I believe it was a short piece he did when he was a kid, which he later fleshed out into the more famous one about the larger feline creature.

The success that Hüller brings to the role of Wendy is testimony to the quiet grace that she, and really all the performers here, exhibits. So much of this story is told with little looks and glances and faint expressions. I’ll point to that same event, when Sarah walks in on Wendy and Stella asleep together, which is, as you point out, full of nuanced details. Wendy tells Sarah that she’s learned about Stella’s “sweetheart”, a little boy that Stella has grown close to back in Germany, something which Sarah knows nothing about. It’s a great little moment when Sarah realizes how much she doesn’t know about Stella, and how important Wendy’s role is in helping Stella through this disorienting time.

The animals, particularly Laika the cat, and the newts, are, like Stella and Sarah, in transition, finding new homes. So much of the film, outside of the training sequences, is all about the characters moving from place to place, transitioning, trying to settle before being uprooted again, forever on the move. And you’ll notice that Stella and her Dad Thomas aren’t terribly good at it, always running late, barely making their flights, or missing them altogether. Again, like so much in the film, it’s a constant string of hiccups and misfires that work out just fine in the end.

As for the horses, particularly at the end, the wild horses running alongside the bus returning Thomas and Stella from the launch site, are noble creatures on the move. The foals running alongside their mothers might well be my vote for the single most moving image in the film, given everything Sarah and Stella have been through, and underscores the film’s central truth, that no matter how much physical distance there is between mother and daughter, they are always tethered together, running side by side.

Jeff: Ah yes, transition, that’s it. I knew the horses were a mother-child thing and the newts were youngins so I was trying to lump them all together, but it didn’t work. But yes the cat and the newts are definitely about transitioning and the horses are a standalone. I also liked your observation that the Stella and dad pairing lacks punctuality or any overt organization in general. This is great in that it shows how much it is the mother that actually keeps a family running in an orderly, adult fashion, trust me, I know. The kids always yammer about dad being the fun one and mom is the boring, annoying one, until she’s gone, and dad’s shortcomings are laid bare. Ah yes, Confucius, the grasshopper is but a… oh, nevermind.

So, where am I, I mean where are We.

OK, so there’s a line in the film which I loved and for the love of all things unholy I can’t remember now who said it but it ties in perfectly to what, I’m thinking, is a major mental struggle Sarah is having nearing launch about not being there for Stella, but is also a lot about just not being there at all (wow that’s a long sentence, yeah, and it keeps getting longer). And the line? Right, it’s “Leaving isn’t even the hard part, the hard part is coming back and realizing life goes on (went on) without you.” And it was Anton, btw, I think.

Jim: That’s right, it’s Anton who says that, because he knows. He’s already been there. Very few ever wait for you while you’re away. Life goes on, relentlessly, while you peddle off in your own direction.

I want to put in a word or two for the score here, the restful ambience of Ryuichi Sakamoto that shades the transitional and meditative moments, of which there are many. The music is as intensely affecting as it is underhanded. Since the editing has the frankness of a documentary, it’s the lyricism of static images that provides the artistic stroke, whether it’s Sarah running on a vertical, pully-assisted treadmill, or Sarah being constantly ferried from one place to the next, passing through yet another checkpoint, or, like with your favorite scene, a training exercise on a breezy, bucolic lake, where Stella and Wendy watch like casual onlookers. And the music is critical to that lyricism.

Which brings me to something that’s been circling around my thoughts, concerning the training exercises, and how they operate within the larger narrative. It’s true that the exercises are simply cool, and fun to watch, with all kinds of high-tech stuff, but I started to realize that their function, like almost everything in Proxima, is transitional, since they always blend in some way with the mundane events of Sarah’s life. I think of the very beginning, where we watch Sarah conduct several training exercises, then hurry out of the building to the parking lot, where she gets in her car and drives home, like anybody at the end of her work day. The lake scene, again, is a great example of this, which segues into the debriefing scene, where Sarah insists on breaking the rules and allowing Stella to attend, which culminates in the film’s most dramatic sequence. But it all goes to emphasize how the quotidian and everyday messiness of being human is inseparable from the strict regimens of training. It strikes me as unique in that way, for a film to portray what is typically gung-ho, almost athletic performance side-by-side with the sometimes dull, sometimes hurried episodes they’re inevitably tied up with. For me, it’s a really refreshing difference that a woman directing a picture about a female astronaut and her daughter brings to a subject most often dominated by the male perspective.

Jeff: Glad you brought up the score. Just like everything else in this film, I liked it, but in a nearly opposite way than I usually do. You can almost miss the music in this film, or think that you have, but it’s literally omnipresent. It adds a complete dimension to the film, a full layer of texture. Just like the training exercises add a layer, a physical one, a transitional one, but they’re all subtle. There’s quite a departure here from what you’re used to seeing in an astronaut film. The moments of family closeness during these incredibly singular, skilled training maneuvers. And yeah, when Sarah breaks protocol and allows Stella to attend a briefing where they are discussing all the things that could go wrong, you’re thinking “yeah, this isn’t gonna end well”, but that’s because you’re watching a film; in Sarah’s mind she’s just trying to make a tiny space for her daughter in a completely un-child-friendly environment.

The film is filled with little everyday ho-hum layers that work in spectacular juxtaposition to what they’re training for. For a film about going into space to be brought so down to earth is really a pretty incredible achievement for Winocour.

I’m not sure how to do this without putting my foot in my mouth, but I was interested in the way the gender angle was handled here. You get a few pat chauvinistic moments early on from Mike, but that is a reality. I’m pretty sure women do the same, just not as overtly. Other than that, the characters show a true respect for women, leaving the onus of what Sarah has to achieve mainly as a “herself vs. her decisions” thing (simply a “a woman CAN do this” thing). It doesn’t prop things up as a Sarah vs. the guys thing which, when you think about it, would be marginalizing. Winocour, again, refreshingly (very refreshingly for me), shows some physical contact initiated by Anton and Mike at certain critical times with Sarah, without the oh so common these days look of horror from her. The statement here, that I think is vitally important and needs to be woven back into film, is that physical contact between non-partner men and women when done correctly is incredibly moving. That every touch doesn’t have to have some creepy sexual innuendo. I loved the scene of Sarah sleeping between the two of them on their camping trip excursion smiling broadly while staring up at the stars. And, of course, the penultimate example of this is when Mike gives her the big embrace, puts his mouth right up to her ear and tells her “there’s no such thing as a perfect mother”, essentially apologizing for his comments in their blow-up at each other after bringing Stella to the debriefing dumpster fire. I guess, in short, I’m trying to say it’s nice to see a film look at this dynamic the way it pretty much is in reality, at least the sane, decent people reality. Let’s see more examples of people putting fears to rest, not the opposite.

Life imitates Art. This film warmed my heart, I’ve now realized, because of these things it does and shows. Yes, as you said, “without all the drama”. This film gives me hope, which again, is refreshing.

Jim: I think I know what you’re talking about, I mean I do know, that it has become verboten to casually touch co-workers in our current cultural climate. But I would never expect that to be something applicable to this workplace. These are three people who will live cheek-by-jowl with one another for a full year. Those rules don’t apply to these co-workers. They need to be as comfortable and caring with one another as possible, and that includes physical contact. I love that shot on the camping trip, too, of Sarah wedged between Mike and Anton, in a moment of pure contentment. It is lovely.

Unless I’m mistaken, it seems like you’re ready to wrap this up. I’m honestly surprised we got this much out of it. I knew right away after first watching Proxima that I wanted to talk with you about it, but feared there might not be much to say about such a tranquil film. Turns out there’s plenty to talk about.

I was thinking about the title today, and how it might be interpreted. It’s a great name for a space mission, since it can refer to the star nearest to us, Proxima Centauri. But I take it more by its literal definition, from the Latin, meaning “close,” “near,” or “approaching,” which is as good a way of describing what the film is about as any, and practically explodes from my favorite part of the film…

But first, what’s yours? You mentioned the lake scene as one of your favorites. Would you say that’s your favorite bit, or is there something else you’d say is the best part?

Jeff: Hey, dude, this has been fun, it always seems to be. I always tend to end up with a much deeper awareness/appreciation for the films we discuss, that being the point of it all, eh. I certainly get a much fuller understanding of pretty much anything I talk with you about, always have. I’d still be banging sharp rocks together hunched over in a cave full of baboons if it wasn’t for you, or is that my 5th grade gym instructor?

Anywho, yeah, on the favorite moment of film question. Seeing how long I’ve sat here trying to think of the answer, I wouldn’t say it’s definitive, but certainly the lake scene, and the Mike moment whispering in her ear, and there’s the final horses shot, but I think I might actually give the nod to the lift-off moment as my most memorable. Stella sitting on Thomas'(Dad’s) shoulders, the two of them gazing up at the rocket as it makes it lumbering, spectacular initial strides upwards. Thomas’ eyes fill with tears while Stella’s with wonder, as we get the age-old, deeply emotional reaction to the beginning of a new and dangerous voyage. And in that moment you finally get the payoff for what Sarah has been sacrificing so much of her and her daughter’s life for. And all that emotion hit me right then but I think I felt a little differently than with other similar cinematic moments. I felt it in a more complete way, a more down to earth way, just kind of happiness, and then all that emotion literally bursts out of you as the horses’ scene hits.

Thanks again brother, stay well and be careful letting any large, furry primates into your home.

Gotta go, my therapist is here.

Jim: Okay, bye, but first… You completely stole my thunder, because I was all set to hard-sell the final scenes. I haven’t said enough about Lars Eidinger’s contribution. That lift-off scene is the exact totality of what this film needs to be in the end. The entire film, literally, rests on Eidinger’s shoulders at that moment, with the emotionally wrecked adult below, and the proud, triumphant child above. In no other moment in the film is Stella as close to her mother as then, when they’re the furthest apart – next to, nearby and approaching – which can also describe the aspirational objectives of the space program. As Stella’s quietly gracious and respectful Dad, Eidinger gets both the Good Guy, and the Cry-Face awards here, from me, though Fateev is stiff competition for the former. Eidinger’s an awesome actor, who just loves the work, and he nails this one pretty solidly. So yeah, the lift-off-to-wild-horses sequence is what makes this work. Or no, it’s what makes this film excel.

Thanks for doing this on such short notice. Before we go, though, you have to tell me how Lise is doing.

Jeff: Well, it looks like Lise is gonna be ok. Don’t want to jinx her/me, but she seems quite a bit better today. She went backward a little yesterday so I teed up Testament of Youth for her to burn away the afternoon, and she loved it. Her only real complaints today are that her taste and smell are still on hiatus. I continue to roam the halls behind my mask with my physical health still intact.

Jim: Please keep it that way. I’m relieved to hear she’s well. Send her my love. I’ve heard the loss of taste and smell is fairly common with COVID.

Thanks again, Jeff. It was a blast exploring this remarkable film with you.

Next time, I’ll be talking with Michael Clawson about Bruno Dumont’s thorny masterpiece L’humanité.