Another World, Another Planet
Been to the cinema much recently? No, me neither: if you'd told me at any point in the last decade or so that there would be a four-and-a-half-month gap between visits to the pictures, I would have concluded that this indicated my leaving the country, going to prison, or having some kind of medical emergency. Nice one me, I suppose, as a medical emergency has indeed been to blame. However, for whatever reason, attempts to drag the country back to something resembling how things used to be have been in progress and this weekend saw the re-opening of the first cinema in Oxford.
Naturally I was there, but I wonder, I wonder. I am as critical as anyone of the efforts of those in power and their media cheerleaders to persuade everyone to resume their old lifestyles, mainly for the benefit of the bottom line and the continuation of the old economic model. People have, perhaps, begun to question what they took for granted, or were told, and even glimpsed another way of living more to their liking. Certainly the virus has shredded our former way of life, and it is foolish to pretend this can quickly or easily be repaired.
Then again, am I not just as worthy of scorn for clinging to the hope that the old model of cinema can be preserved? As you may have surmised, I used to go to the cinema two or three times a week, on average, occasionally far more often than that. Often this wasn't because I had a burning desire to see a particular film, but I enjoyed following the schedules, finding new and unusual things to write about – even the simple routine of going to the cinema (buying my ticket, taking my seat, waiting for the lights to go down, watching the adverts for the umpteenth time) was something I genuinely took pleasure in. You don't get any of those things just streaming something.
I hope it's too early to make predictions, because the signs were not especially positive – although the whole experience was a little surreal, to be honest. It turned out I had forgotten which of my cinema cards was which, for one thing: that would have been unthinkable back in March. (Though looking on the bright side, my membership has been extended until the middle of next year.) There were all the masks and bits of hand sanitising equipment you would have expected, all for the benefit of... well, just me, if we're honest about this. I had the whole screen to myself. Now, I should say that this was not that unusual even back in the old days, given some of the obscure films I went to see at funny times, and the afternoon showing of a subtitled art-house drama on a sunny August day would likely never pull a big crowd. But even so.
Notably few commercials, and – other than one for vodka – most of these were for either charities or public health agencies. Not many trailers, either – well, one, to be precise, for Tenet (which feels like it is rapidly becoming the last great hope of mainstream cinema for this year). According to the trailer Tenet is (or was) released in July 2020 – but, given the time-mangling nature of the story implied by the trailer, this actually feels oddly appropriate, and it's far from the only film which had its publicity campaign overtaken by events: all over the city centre one could see buses still decked out in advertising material for movies which were supposed to open in March, and never did: ghosts of a vanished future.
Anyway, I went to the cinema to go to the cinema rather than see any particular film. The one I ended up going to see was Alice Winocour's Proxima, which had a hopeful, slightly science-fictiony-sounding title – although had I known going in that Winocour also co-wrote the accomplished but slightly heavy Mustang I might have managed my expectations a bit. There you go: always do your research, friends.
Proxima does indeed turn out to be slightly science-fictiony, by which I mean it is a film about space exploration rather than an actual piece of science fiction. Or is it really about something else? Eva Green plays Sarah Loreau, a woman whose lifelong ambition has been to become an astronaut: her daughter (Zelie Boulant-Lemesle) is named Stella and her cat is named Laika, after the Soviet space dog. At the start of the film it looks like her dream has come true, as she is selected for Proxima, a long-duration space mission and a crucial part of the programme which will culminate in putting a person on Mars.
Rather tellingly, the first thing Sarah worries about once she gets this news is sorting out her childcare for while she's away: Stella will have to go and live with Sarah's former partner Thomas, an astrophysicist (Lars Eidinger). Then it's on with the training, and having to sort out some sort of modus vivendi with the American mission commander, Shannon (Matt Dillon), who seems openly dubious about her abilities. As the training regime grows increasingly gruelling, Sarah becomes aware of the strain all of this is placing on her relationship with her daughter, and the concerns of her psychiatrist (Sandra Huller).
I know what you're thinking: Gravity knock-off. Well, I can see where you're coming from, but no it isn't, not least because none of the film actually takes place in space – it's all resolutely earthbound, about the training process rather than the actual mission. A big chunk of it looks like it was shot at Star City in Russia (officially the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre), with some scenes being filmed around the Baikonur space centre. I'm not as much of a space enthusiast as some people whom I know, but even so, the nuts and bolts of the training regime are fascinating and occasionally unexpected, assuming the film isn't just making things up: trainee astronauts watching upside-down TVs to prepare for work in zero gravity, for instance. I think this naturalistic element of the film will be quite engaging enough to satisfy many viewers.
On the other hand, though, by the end it is quite clear that the movie isn't really about a woman preparing to go into space: it's about a mother on that journey. Every element of the story is viewed through the lens of the relationship between Sarah and Stella and Sarah's attempts to preserve the bond between them. We are invited – maybe even commanded – to sympathise with Sarah and accept that the maternal connection is one which the male-dominated space exploration establishment do not appreciate. At one point Sarah commits a massive breach of mission protocols in order to keep a promise to her daughter, and it is presented as a transcendent moment of togetherness rather than someone being dangerously irresponsible. It doesn't quite sit well with a film which is implicitly critical of the chauvinist American alpha-jock played by Dillon (when asked how he feels about a French woman joining the crew, his response is that he's happy, because they'll have someone around to do all the cooking). Dillon's character suggests that Sarah's preoccupation with her daughter makes her a bit of a liability, but the really odd thing is that the film implies he is correct, while simultaneously presenting her as a sympathetic, admirable figure. (Then again I am neither a woman nor a parent, just someone who occasionally enjoys space films: I fully expect other people to have very different takeaways where Proxima is concerned.).
Well, apart from that it is competently written and directed, with a very good performance from Eva Green and solid support from everyone else (Boulant-Lemesle gives an extremely self-assured turn for one so young). As I said, the nitty-gritty of the story is fascinating, I just couldn't buy into the film's idealisation of motherhood, or the suggestion that mums who go into space are making some kind of unqiue sacrifice – plenty of fathers go into space, after all. Is Winocour suggesting they are all distant, cool parents without much of a connection with their kids? Oh well. Not the best film of the year, nor the worst, and so probably the kind of thing we should be hoping for going forward, if we really want to see the restoration of something resembling the old days. That still feels like it's a long way off, though.