Sarah is a good astronaut because she is a mother, not in spite of it. And she is a good mother because she is a good astronaut. If Sarah were to deny her own self-actualization, she would be denying the same for Stella. The logic follows that Stella would also have to forego any professional aspirations when she becomes a mother, an intention Stella announces in her first scene. Sarah is determined not to bequeath Stella such a paltry legacy.
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“When do you float?” asks the protagonist’s daughter in the voice-over prologue of writer-director Alice Winocour’s Proxima (2019). Literally, the question is about the physics of space travel, about the point at which a launched rocket and its passengers are no longer subject to the Earth’s gravity. The mother addressed here, Sarah Loreau (Eva Green), is an astronaut-in- training, about to embark on a one-year stint at the International Space Station. Figuratively, we come to understand, the question is about psychology and sociology, about the point at which Sarah – and the figure of the working mother she represents – might be released from the competing demands of motherhood and professional ambition, opposing forces threatening to tear her in two. In this sense, then, the opening question about floating conjures the famous 1970s and ’80s advertising campaign in which frazzled working mothers implored “Calgon, take me away” – from screaming babies and shouting bosses alike. But Proxima offers something better than a bubble bath, not least of all to the much-discussed, exponentially frazzled working mothers of Covid-19 quarantines, which the film’s release preceded by mere months. Proxima offers a deeply empathetic exploration of the dilemma of working mothers, envisioning a space not just of survival but of full self-actualization.
To better appreciate Winocour’s achievement, Proxima should be situated in (film) history. Mainstream American cinema has not been kind to the working mother, not even she of the white and white-collar variety on whom I focus here. When not ignoring her as a figure of dramatic interest altogether, Hollywood’s tendency has been to dramatize her impossibility, running her through the wringer of the motherhood vs. career dualism punishingly. As the ur-text of this tendency, Mildred Pierce (1945) worked to discipline a generation of Rosie the Riveters back out of the workforce after World War II, by showing what happens to a woman – even one as glamorous as Joan Crawford in broad-shouldered power suits – who deludes herself that she can have both children and a career (as owner of a restaurant franchise): to wit, the death and homicidal derangement of her youngest and eldest daughters, respectively. As film scholar Pamela Robertson Wojcik argues, Mildred Pierce’s mash-up of women’s melodrama and the masculine genre of film noir does much of this ideological work, with the latter policing the protagonist back into her “proper place” in the former. In Mildred Pierce, the working mother is rendered regrettable, unfeminine, unnatural, even criminal, a threat to her children and, as such, society at large. With the rise of pop psychology, mom-blaming was as rife in the postwar era as any.
Things didn’t improve much with the advent of the second-wave feminist movement in the 1960s, since which women (again, especially white women) have been encouraged to aspire to the highest professions, even as cultural norms continue to place the onus of child-rearing and household chores at their feet, resulting in an unsustainable “double duty” unmitigated by helpful public policy, like paid family leave and subsidized daycare, enjoyed by working women in other countries. Nor have cinematic representations offered much help, continuing to ignore the working mother or treat her as a psychically divided contradiction in terms and/or the source of children’s maladjustment, even monstrously so in horror films. In the 1970s and ’80s, “career women” were often represented as frigid ice queens, unnaturally suppressing their maternal instincts, though some of them might yet be thawed in comedies. Take Baby Boom (1987), which argues explicitly that a woman cannot “have it all.” When career-driven management consultant J. C. Wiatt (Diane Keaton) is unexpectedly burdened, nay blessed, with an adopted baby girl, her attempt to work and mother is a laughable disaster. So she abandons her career (and power suits) in Manhattan for a life of domestic bliss (and bathrobes) in rural Vermont, even if the film tries to have it both ways by making J. C.’s Vermont kitchen the base for a successful baby food business, which is more than Mildred Pierce was allowed at least.
Skipping ahead twenty-five years, even after working motherhood had served as a well-worn battlefield of the culture wars and mommy wars alike, I Don’t Know How She Does It’s (2011) caricature of working motherhood offered no real solutions, just as its title suggests. To the explicitly asked question again of whether women can “have it all,” the answer is still no, not really. I Don’t Know’s working mom, Kate Reddy (Sarah Jessica Parker), suffers the dualism of motherhood vs. career messily, her dishevelment played for laughs. She is late for everything, plagued by guilt, worried that her absences for work trips – and her broken promise to build a snowman – will render her daughter sociopathic (the film shows us Kate’s nightmare of a future mom-blaming newscast). Trying to “keep all the plates spinning,” Kate keeps ridiculously long to-do lists: “You might as well add ‘Dock the Space Station,’” her husband (Greg Kinnear) says with exasperation. Professionally ambitious to a fault, Kate is a direct descendant of Mildred Pierce (Kate’s absence also ends with a kid in a hospital bed) and J. C. Wiatt. And I Don’t Know’s resolution to Kate’s struggles are as unhelpful: the deus ex machina of a suddenly enlightened boss and an unearned optimism about Kate’s capacity to be a better “juggler.”
That same year, 2011, We Need to Talk about Kevin – about a mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton), devastated by her son Kevin’s (Ezra Miller) act of mass murder – elaborated Kate’s nightmare about rearing a sociopathic child to feature length. And though We Need to Talk presents the issue of mom-blaming with sensitivity, it nevertheless presents working motherhood as psychic disaster. After all, motherhood had ripped Eva away from her soul-filling career as a travel agent, and she resented it, regardless of whether that resentment affected Kevin’s derangement. In other words, even if Eva didn’t “ruin” Kevin, Kevin (and motherhood) surely ruined Eva (and her chances at professional self-actualization). In We Need to Talk, cinematic working motherhood verges again into horror, as have more recent films, like Hereditary (2018) and Shirley (2020), in which careers in the arts – the most selfish of professions – are rendered horrifically incompatible with motherhood.
Enter Alice Winocour’s Proxima. As an established feminist filmmaker (writer-director of Augustine, 2012, and co-writer of Mustang, 2015) and a mother herself working in a highly demanding, male-dominated field, Winocour set out to argue for the possibility of the working mother. Though French-produced, the film is designed to speak to global audiences of mainstream American cinema and to subvert its long-standing tropes of working motherhood. Winocour cast (one-time Bond Girl) Eva Green and Matt Dillon, and she scripted dialogue in English, as well as French, German, and Russian. And Winocour made an inspired (sub)genre choice: the astronaut-in-training drama, with all the big-budget ambition and Hollywood tradition it connotes, from The Right Stuff (1987) and Apollo 13 (1995) to First Man (2018). Associated with masculinity, the astronaut-in-training drama offered a made-to-order metaphor for breaking the glass ceiling in the highest of professions, an aspiration so lofty – docking the space station – that it was a joke in I Don’t Know (see above). Moreover, to be an astronaut is an aspiration associated with unimpeachable higher purpose. Astronauts are the best of us, peak physical and spiritual specimens, heroes modeling grace under pressure. Thus, the subgenre purchases a baseline of sympathy for Winocour’s protagonist Sarah: This is not a woman intent on making obscene money from restaurant franchising, management consulting, or investment banking (like Mildred, J. C., or Kate, respectively) – nor, worse yet, is she a self-absorbed artist. This is a woman in admirable pursuit of scientific advance and human progress.
The story is a simple one, as befits Winocour’s intent, as she explained in an interview, to present Sarah as “a metaphor of this dilemma [of the working mother] that you don’t have to go to space to experience.” When the film begins, Sarah works at the European Astronaut Centre near Cologne, Germany, and has just been selected for the Proxima Mission: she and two male colleagues, Mike (Dillon) and Anton (Aleksey Fateev), will spend a year at the International Space Station, in part to gather data for upcoming Mars missions (“proxima” is Spanish for “next”). For Sarah, the assignment is a professional triumph, the fruition of a childhood dream and years of hard work. But there’s a catch: Sarah will be leaving behind her eight-year-old daughter Stella (Zélie Boulant). Proxima’s story develops over the next two months, as Sarah prepares for the mission and her leave-taking from Stella, first on a three-week training stint to Star City in Russia and then on a two-week quarantine near the launch site in Kazakhstan – the on-location filming of which separated Winocour from her own young daughter for months at a time.
With palpable empathy, Winocour makes us feel the competing pulls of career and motherhood on Sarah, the “modern” expectation of “getting it all done,” as Sarah puts it wryly in one scene. In between intensive training sessions, Sarah arranges to leave Stella in the care of her father, astrophysicist Thomas Akerman (Lars Eidinger), from whom Sarah has recently separated and who lives in Darmstadt, 200 kilometers from Cologne. (The math equations scrawled on Thomas’s kitchen cupboards suggest his presumption that he can combine his new domestic responsibilities with his professional life.) Sarah brings Stella to meet with Wendy (Sanda Hüller), a counselor assigned to help Stella with the logistical and emotional challenges of her mother’s departure, accompanying Stella on visits to Star City and Kazakhstan while monitoring her separation anxiety. And Sarah seeks to carve out quality time with Stella: to release pet newts into a stream, to draw skyscrapers, to swim in hotel pools. But there is never enough time. Sarah is always running late, and always disappointing someone: a TV interview crew, a Star City trainer, Thomas, and (mostly) Stella, with whom she breaks promises at least three times due to work demands.
Winocour is aware of the tropes of working motherhood, and invokes their tight hold on us in order to unwind them. She suggests a certain coldness to Sarah, particularly in Green’s performance and the harsh light and techno-industrial mise-en-scène of Soviet-era space training facilities. Sarah is defeminized. In lieu of the usual power suit, Sarah’s female body is contained in androgynous blue jumpsuits and oversized spacesuits specifically designed for male bodies (as a recent debacle at NASA underscored). Sarah seems determined to suppress her maternal instincts and, along with them, Stella’s needs and fears about the legitimate dangers of space travel. “It’s no big deal,” “It’ll be fine,” and “You won’t have a problem,” Sarah tells Stella dismissively. In one sequence, Sarah deadens her own maternal worries with a sleeping pill, and then fails to awaken in the morning to say goodbye, as Wendy gently ushers Stella away. For these failings, including offloading her maternal responsibilities onto Wendy and Thomas, Winocour confronts us with our temptation to judge Sarah harshly. She uses sweet Stella to pull on our heartstrings and invoke the dread of a child’s maladjustment, an innocent lamb sacrificed on the altar of Sarah’s ambition. Transplanted to Darmstadt, Stella struggles to adjust socially and academically. In her mother’s absence, she spikes a fever and breaks an arm; in her mother’s (distracted) presence in Star City, she goes briefly missing. With each of these, Winocour teases us with a sense of foreboding, activating our cinematic muscle memory: Are we on the verge of disaster here, for which our only recourse will be mom-blaming?
Against these impulses, however, Winocour argues avidly for Sarah’s right to a fully realized professional life. Over and over again, she gives us Sarah at work, in scenes that celebrate her extreme competence, pride, and joy. In virtual reality and underwater exercises, Sarah floats ably through simulated space walks. In simulated space travel, she holds together against tremendous g-forces, and hangs inverted, practicing “seeing the world upside down,” without gravity. Typical of the astronauts-in-training drama, we linger on Sarah’s physical fitness, high IQ and EQ, technological proficiency, dogged determination, and bravery. Sarah has wanted to be an astronaut since age eight (not incidentally Stella’s age), even though her own mother told her “it was not a job for girls.” And, as if this dream-squelching mother were not enough, Winocour gives us a similarly heavy-handed foil in Dillon’s sexist character Mike, who takes on the role played by James Spader in Baby Boom and Seth Meyers in I Don’t Know: the male co-worker unburdened by parenting (whether because he’s childless or has a stay-at-home wife), ready to pounce should the working mother stumble, to replace her with a man.
Of course, Mike is wrong. Sarah is the right woman for the job. She has “all the right stuff,” as Thomas assures Stella: “Your mummy. She loves this stuff. She’s made for it.” Sarah is not cold, not robotically emotionless. Rather, she is “solid,” as the profusely admiring Russian hostess in Star City argues female astronauts must be. Indeed, that Sarah is an astronaut in a female body is all the more impressive, Winocour argues. She shows us Sarah telling a doctor she will opt to keep her hair long and menstruate in space, refusing to suppress the latter inconvenience with pills. In a scene that suggests a hospital delivery room, a team of scientists mold a capsule seat to fit Sarah’s female form, which Winocour shows us naked in three shots throughout the film, intentionally rejecting her disembodiment.
In contrast to Mildred Pierce, which wields its gendered genres hierarchically in order to argue that women don’t belong in “male” spaces, Proxima blends its gendered genres to argue the opposite. Especially as the film progresses, there is fluidity between Sarah’s home life and professional life, between her relationship to Stella and to her job. We see a montage of Sarah training in Star City, as we hear voice-over of her describing it, lyrically, in an email to Stella; the sequence ends with Sarah’s voice replaced by Stella’s, reading the email in Thomas’s apartment. This blend is repeated – and Sarah’s and Stella’s perspectives blurred – as the two exchange phone calls, emails, videos, and, finally, Sarah’s handwritten letter to Stella, to be read after liftoff.
The point is that Sarah is a good astronaut because she is a mother, not in spite of it. And she is a good mother because she is a good astronaut. If Sarah were to deny her own self-actualization, she would be denying the same for Stella. The logic follows that Stella would also have to forego any professional aspirations when she becomes a mother, an intention Stella announces in her first scene. Sarah is determined not to bequeath Stella such a paltry legacy. This determination is given symbolic expression when Sarah, looking for a departing gift for Stella, bemoans the usual plastic toy dishes in a Kazakhstan store: “always the same.” As Winocour reminds us at least four times, Sarah was once a child, just like Stella, with dreams of space travel.
Winocour emphasizes this mother-daughter likeness not only with Stella’s name and her telescope, but with a constant mirroring of Sarah and Stella, facilitated by great casting and plenty of dialogue: “You look like your mother”; “She’s quite adventurous like her mother.” In an opening scene, Sarah plays liftoff with Stella on her back. Visiting the European Space Agency, Stella’s figure appears silhouetted before a giant screen depicting the interior of the ISS, in which Stella appears to float. We see Stella learning to ride a bike triumphantly, just after Thomas has associated bike-riding with Sarah’s professional ambitions. Sarah and Stella cling to each other in a hotel pool, and mirror each other in the glass that separates them while Sarah is in quarantine in Kazakhstan. Wincour argues that mother and daughter are inextricably connected, even as she lends a positive valence to their (superficial) separation and, with it, Stella’s emerging independence: natural, inevitable, healthy. All the catastrophic thinking about Sarah’s absence proves overwrought: Stella’s fever resolves; her broken arm proves a boon (a chance for new friends to sign her pink cast); she acclimates well to her new surroundings (like the released newts). She is resilient, and profoundly proud of her mother.
In this sense, Stella is the titular “Proxima,” which actually means both “next” and “near,” in the feminine. When Sarah finally launches into space at film’s end, she brings Stella with her, gazing into her daughter’s school picture – attached to a mirror, in which we also see Sarah’s reflection – as the rocket shudders jarringly upward, towards floating. Fittingly, then, the final shot is from Stella’s point of view. Riding in a bus away from the launchpad in Kazakhstan, she smiles to see wild horses running free, the foals drafting the mares’ paceline, benefiting from a space of less resistance carved out by their mothers.
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Images are screenshots from the films discussed.