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CAIRO 2022

Review: The Astronaut


- Director-star Nicolas Giraud’s second feature finds him sitting in a tin can and shooting for the moon

Review: The Astronaut
Nicolas Giraud and Mathieu Kassovitz in The Astronaut

Nicolas Giraud, who’s had a steady career acting in French features, has just brought The Astronaut, his absurd yet endearing second directorial effort, to a Cairo International Film Festival world premiere in the International Competition. An unabashedly personal film for Giraud, you have the impression watching The Astronaut that the final result, with its sometimes elaborate mise-en-scène and production design, and its carefully subdued touches of emotion, has turned out just how he wished, and constitutes exactly what he’d want to express about many things close to him. Still, the film is severely hamstrung by not quite seeming aware of how ridiculous and far-fetched it is, with its intentions, however well-meaning, not having the desired effect.

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Perhaps we should be less defeatist about the ageing process and acknowledge how life’s progress tends to resemble a marathon, rather than a sprint, but it’s very tempting to write, or make a Freudian slip, that Giraud’s character, Jim, a propulsion engineer for the French aerospace company Arianespace (what a self-flattering job!), is a boy with a dream, rather than a melancholic forty-something, so rigidly and innocently focused is he on his life’s pursuit. Despite his likely very fulfilling professional commitments, he really is the kid who said “astronaut” when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, and never amended his answer. Crestfallen at being rejected in the final round for the European Space Agency’s spaceflight programme (recently shown in Alice Winocour’s Proxima [+see also:
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interview: Alice Winocour
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), he embarks on the obvious thing and builds a rocket in a secret workshop on his grandmother Odette (Hélène Vincent)’s farm. The enormous contraption was seemingly assembled in DIY fashion, yet looks like it was confiscated from a highly classified part of NASA.

Early-career features made by actors tend to be incongruously well cast, and that is retained here, with an actor like Hippolyte Girardot absconding from bourgeois Parisian dramas to be Jim’s superior at Ariane, the demands of his character requiring him to be a disapproving worrywart, then at the film’s end to mutter, “By God, he’s done it,” under his breath as the rocket triumphantly takes off. Mathieu Kassovitz is on unusually morose and bearded form as Alexandre, a former ESA astronaut who did a stint at the International Space Station and who is on-boarded as a consultant for Jim’s maverick project.

The imagery and aesthetics feel inspired by, and accurately mimic, recent big-budget space operas like Ad Astra and Arrival, opting for desaturated visuals and a plaintive, minimalist score; it’s in these elements that the film most convinces as a French twist on this recent cycle of movies, ever-conscious of the supposed limitations of that national cinema, and self-reflexive for all the “no’s” that Jim receives when pitching his big dream. Yet it also sends the mind racing back to the ingenious early Wallace and Gromit short A Grand Day Out, with it sharing the exact same narrative thrust of a plucky amateur devising a space launch in unlikely grey, suburban climes (although Jim doesn’t keep a broom cupboard full of crackers). The Astronaut, with its ostensibly realist surface, would oddly feel more plausible, as well as being able to surmount some of the budgetary restrictions, if it were animated and further divorced from the everyday. Aardman Animation, in its Oscar-garlanded, fingerprint-smudged claymation era, had it sussed how best to tell this story 30 years before.

The Astronaut is a French-Belgian production, staged by Nord-Ouest Films and Artémis Productions. Orange Studio co-produced it, in addition to handling foreign sales.

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