The Astronaut (L’astronaute) has its UK première at the Glasgow Film Festival 2023
“Ever since I was a kid I dreamed of space,” says Jim Desforges (Nicolas Giraud), too far into The Astronaut (L’astronaute) for this to be a direct lift of the famous opening line from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), but verbally close enough (even in translation) to forge an associative link between the two films across nationalities and genres. Jim’s dream was passed down by his late grandfather Claude, a farmer who always had his eyes to the stars, but never managed to realise his fantasy of reaching them – and now that Jim is himself nearing his 40s and visibly greying, it is starting to look as though the dream is over him too, even if he clings to the past, as is both symbolised and literalised by the fact that he is still living with his grandmother – and Claude’s widow – Odette (Hélène Vincent).
Jim is a propulsion engineer working for the Ariane rocket programme – and for eight years he has been secretly building his own rocket in the farm’s barn. So far his only support has been Odette and the chemist André Lavelle (Bruno Lochet), but now that his project is advancing, he turns to the experienced if retired astronaut Alexandre Ribbot (Mathieu Kassovitz) and the young mathematician Izumi Sayako (Ayumi Roux), all of whom are soon working as a close team to get the first entirely amateur manned flight into space.
Where typically films about attempts to get into space focus on the best of the best – those top guns with élite training and the right stuff – The Astronaut is full of characters who are the second best. Some years ago Jim had narrowly failed to become an astronaut with the European Space Agency. In his final space walk, Alexandre became untethered and nearly died. Izumi flunked her exam in orbit determination. André is a middle-aged autodidact and a complete amateur – and Odette is a septuagenarian with no skills whatsoever relating to aeronautics. So this is very much a B-team of also-rans, united by a common dream and a shared determination to see it through against overwhelming odds.
There is a reflexive element to all this. Giraud, as well as playing a character who is both the rocket’s designer and pilot, is also the film’s director and co-writer (with Stéphane Cabel), taking a subgenre normally associated with the American studios, and doing it himself. Here the realisation of the scrappy space mission mirrors the production of the film, and if, near the end, Giraud steals an emotional beat from Damien Chazelle’s First Man (2018), that, like the reference to Goodfellas, is a mark of difference as much as similarity.
For The Astronaut is the little film that could, proving itself, with its sparingly used but awe-strikingly impactful effects, a match for the big boys with their bigger toys and bigger budgets. It turns a grand cosmic journey at the threshold of human endurance into a heartfelt, deeply personal ritual of homage, in a universe where we are all ultimately just space dust.
strap: In Nicolas Giraud’s drama of celestial dreams and earthly gravity, a middle-aged amateur rocketeer attempts to leave Earth
© Anton Bitel