When speaking about her Earthbound space drama Proxima, French writer-director Alice Winocour talks of its protagonist as a “superheroine” and her star Eva Green’s character as a “warrior”. The language reflects a genuine respect for real-life astronauts, but particularly those women who still have to deal with day-to-day concerns while in an extremely atypical workplace.
The film follows the efforts of European Space Agency astronaut Sarah Loreau (Green) as she prepares for a year-long mission on the International Space Station, her arduous training made more challenging by the chauvinism of Matt Dillon’s alpha-male NASA astronaut and the emotional pressures of leaving her daughter behind her.
When a woman becomes an astronaut it’s almost certainly harder for her to dial back on the parental role than for most male counterparts. For Winocour that balancing act is the unrecognised “superpower”, and in addressing the issue Proxima becomes something of a feminist film, The Right Stuff without testosterone.
Green gives a tour de force performance, amid an accomplished blend of space programme procedural and family drama. At heart, says Winocour, “It’s about a love between mother and daughter. And I always had in my mind the idea that a woman separating from a daughter could resonate with the state of separation from your own planet.” It’s telling, she suggests, that the protocol of the Russian space agency talks of a rocket’s ‘umbilical separation’ from the Earth.
In her research she discovered that while male astronauts happily speak about their children, their female colleagues are more coy. Winocour equates that to the societal pressures on female high achievers everywhere. “The women astronauts know that if they say they have children people will consider that a weakness, it will mean they will not be focussed. So, I don’t know if shame is the right word, but they are hiding this. It’s the same in companies, in real life beyond my milieu and my cinema.”
She’s notably accompanied the film’s end credits with family photos of real-life female astronauts posing in their space suits alongside their children. “It was important to me to pay tribute. I received such touching messages from them. One said how happy she was that, at last, a film shows that you can be a good mother and a good astronaut.”
Of course the same dilemma might apply to female filmmakers. “I could relate to this story because I am myself a mother,” says Winocour, whose daughter is 10. “It’s something very close to me, this feeling of guilt and how to overcome it. When I was shooting in Russia my daughter was very sick. It’s not that it’s not hard for me, because it is.”
She sees other parallels between the worlds of space travel and filmmaking. “In the space programme the public only sees the astronauts, in cinema the actors. But there are so many people involved to make these dreams possible – mission control, all the teams on the ground, everyone on a film crew. There’s a collective work and energy.
“And when Matt [Dillon] says in the film, ‘If you’re not able to be seated on a million tonnes of explosive, you wouldn’t do it,’ it could be a metaphor for cinema. When you’re making a film, it’s like having tonnes of explosive under you.”
Seeking authenticity, Winocour enlisted space programme trainers (“They didn’t give a shit that it was Eva Green. They were very tough on her”) and shot at real facilities – the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Star City, home to the Soyuz programme near Moscow and the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch site in Kazakhstan.
“I wanted the film to be real, and to be physical. As a filmmaker I’m fascinated by cinema’s relationship to the body. The paradox of the astronaut is that they are superhuman, but to go into space is an experience of fragility and vulnerability. Our bodies are made to live on Earth. Conditions in space are really hard: it hurts physically, you lose your sense of balance, your cells grow older. In a way astronauts are a kind of mutant; I wanted to film this mutation, as Sarah becomes a space person.
“To me this was a mix of that Cronenberg influence – I thought about Crash (1996) – and films like Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (1999), really simple in the writing and the staging, very small details, about the fragility of humanity.”
When asked about space movies that have influenced her, Winocour cites Tarkovsky’s Solaris, another film “more about Earth than space”. While Proxima’s strong female character and motherhood theme may make others think of Ripley in the Alien franchise, a more interesting comparison is with James Gray’s recent Ad Astra. That film was a bold, big-budget account of one man’s journey to the edge of the solar system to reunite with his long-lost father. Proxima is intimately scaled, Earthbound, with a mother and daughter contemplating separation. Brad Pitt’s trip was existential, Green’s very relatable in its family dynamics.
Having studied screenwriting at La Fémis in Paris, Winocour won a César for co-writing (with director Deniz Gamze Ergüven) 2015’s Turkish-set drama about sisterhood and forced marriage, Mustang. Her interest in the body, and in particular trauma, have been connecting threads in her films as writer-director: Augustine (2012), about the study and ill-treatment of women deemed ‘hysterics’ in 19th century France; and Disorder (2015), about a former soldier turned bodyguard who suffers from PTSD.
“What interested me in Augustine was the rebellion of the body. This was considered the first feminist revolution, because most of those women were raped but had no rights, it was not even [regarded as] a crime. So the only way for them to rebel was with this neurological crisis.
“The man in Disorder is also an hysteric character, he’s expressing his PTSD through his body. Again it’s this idea of the body’s memory of trauma. The body talks. It’s a way of screaming.”
Winocour, some of whose family were Holocaust victims in Auschwitz, voices a degree of empathy with her characters. “I’ve been exposed to trauma, in my personal life and the story of my family. When I made Disorder, for example, I felt close to those soldiers; I was not a soldier, I’ve never been to Afghanistan, but I almost died giving birth to my daughter and I really felt this post-traumatic condition. I know where it starts.”
But the more personal a story is, she says, the further away the world of the film has to be from her own. “And here, because it was a mother and daughter relationship, it needed to be very, very far away, almost space.” She laughs. “I think my daughter has written a lot of the dialogue.”