Glasgow Film Festival looks to the stars for its opening gala; as does the protagonist of Proxima, an ace female astronaut whose personal life threatens to get in the way of her professional dreams. Alice Winocour’s intimate drama wears its themes on its sleeve as Eva Green deals with the travails of the working mother writ large, and impresses with its terrific performances and wealth of technical details, even if its schematic narrative isn’t quite as stellar.

Sarah (Green) is an astronaut undergoing training in preparation for a year-long posting onboard the International Space Station. She’s delighted at being given this opportunity, yet must deal with the prospect of a year apart from her eight year-old daughter Stella (Zélie Boulant). On top of this, she feels like she has to prove herself yet again to her colleague on the trip, Mike Shannon (Matt Dillon), an old-school macho American with a steady line of low-level chauvinism.  As the mission launch gets closer, the pressure on Sarah increases, as does the bond between mother and daughter.

Green’s protagonist may be preparing for a trip into space, but Proxima is steadfastly Earthbound as a drama; rooted in the familiar difficulties of a woman juggling both her profession and her family. That Sarah is an astronaut is simply an extreme case, but there is a sense of multitudes unspoken between the family, including Sarah’s estranged husband (Lars Eidinger). The implied sacrifices she must have made to excel in her field as she does are immense, particularly one as male-dominated as space exploration.

While the slightly antagonistic professional relationship between Sarah and Shannon is for the most part quickly resolved, it’s the focus on the central mother and daughter relationship that generates the film’s central tension. Green and Boulant are completely believable as mère et fille, and the increasing strain on them is depicted without recourse to emotive melodrama. Instead, young Stella’s confusion and burgeoning resentment manifest as various instances of micro-aggression, such as an insistence on talking to Sarah in her father’s native German rather than Sarah’s French. She also begins to struggle at school, mirroring the difficulties Sarah begins to experience in her training.

Winocour’s painstaking accuracy went as far getting permission to film at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and there’s a fetishistic level of detail to the depiction of the training that Sarah undergoes, which helps the authenticity of the setting and our belief in her as a character. It’s when her immaculate standards begin to slip that we understand the pressure that her impending separation from Stella is exerting; with a wound she sustains that refuses to heal adding an extra varnish of symbolism. However, Sarah’s commitment to maintaining her composure when around Stella blunts our engagement, particularly when it forces a repetitive structure of scenes of Sarah with Stella, and scenes of her training environment. This cycle exacerbates a narrative flatness that its otherwise exemplary restraint can’t overcome.

Proxima nevertheless always holds the attention thanks to Eva Green’s central performance; vanity-free and endlessly empathetic. So used are we to her playing the seductive Irma Vep-style vamp that she initially seems like counter-intuitive casting, but she convinces entirely as both a consummate astronaut and a conflicted mother. Sarah’s journey from Earth gains lift off on the same thematic fuel as Interstellar and the recent Ad Astra, although it feels much more umbilically connected to terra firma and uninterested in any sci-fi trappings beyond the inherent awe we still feel at the spectacle of a rocket being propelled toward the heavens. Its occasionally plodding in its pace, but increases in stature retrospectively when its gentle resonance sinks in. A solid opening to the festival, if not a spectacular one.

Part of Glasgow Film Festival 2020

In cinemas Fri 8 May 2020