Alice Winocour on Glasgow Film Festival opener Proxima

Disorder director Alice Winocour tells how new film Proxima, which follows an astronaut juggling space training with raising her young daughter, is still very much an "earthy" movie

Feature by Katie Goh | 20 Feb 2020
  • Proxima

Alice Winocour is confident that she hasn’t made a space movie. “I didn’t!” she reiterates with a laugh down the phone. “It’s about the dream of space but more about life on Earth... it’s an Earth movie!” And despite the number of space helmets, rockets and astronauts in her latest film, Winocour is absolutely right: Proxima is very much about what’s going on here and now on terra firma.

In the film, Eva Green plays Sarah, a hardworking astronaut whose ambition of going to space finally comes true: she gets the call that she has been chosen to join the Proxima Mission and will undergo gruelling training at the European Space Agency before rocketing off to the International Space Station. But her dream comes with a cost: her young daughter, Stella (Zelie Boulant-Lemesle), can’t understand why her mother is leaving her behind on Earth and she has to move in with her father. Alongside Sarah’s race to space runs a more familiar and intimate journey of a mother and daughter having to learn to live separately from one another.

Winocour, Proxima's writer and director, initially planned to make a film about a mother and a daughter and it just so happened that the figure of the astronaut served as the perfect metaphor for that relationship. “I thought it would designate this idea of separation because astronauts have to separate from Mother Earth,” she explains. “There are lots of little separations before the big separation. It’s like the stages of a rocket leaving the atmosphere. You have to get rid of different stages of the rocket for lift-off.”

Placing Sarah in the context of astronaut training also allowed Winocour to remove herself from that relationship. “I think the more intimate the story, the more it has to be in a different world or a different century,” she says with a pause. “I think because it was about a mother and a daughter it had to be very far away, so a space movie is the perfect setting. And it was also great to have this kind of superheroine who is an astronaut and a mother, a type of character that’s really absent from films.”

While researching Proxima, Winocour met with astronauts and astrophysicists, especially women in the field, and visited training centres, including the European Space Agency in Cologne. The film was shot in these real facilities, giving the cinematography an often documentary-like level of realism. Winocour has been surprised by how many people have compared Proxima to a documentary. “It’s a bit weird,” she admits. “I didn’t want to make anything like a documentary at all, but rather tell an emotional and fictional story. Maybe it’s because it’s an unusual way of showing astronauts in films, in real training centres.”

The film’s realism certainly grounds it on Earth as Winocour moves away from the romanticised training montages so often seen in movies about going to space. “I wanted to show it was difficult,” says Winocour. As the sole female astronaut on the space mission, Sarah’s training is only worsened with snide remarks from her colleagues about her gender. During her welcoming ceremony, she’s treated to some casual sexism by her fellow astronauts about French women making great cooks.

“As a woman, I think being in those macho environments is something we can live with because we have been for so long,” says Winocour. When asked if she can relate to Sarah’s predicament as one of few women in a male-dominated field, she agrees. “Of course! In cinema schools in France, there is parity now with men and women, but less than 20% of directors are female so clearly there is still a long way to go. And with astronauts, why are only 10% of them female? It’s not that they are less good, it’s because women as children aren’t even allowed to dream of becoming astronauts.”

What Winocour finds even more troubling than the casual sexism of Sarah’s colleagues is the gendered standards of perfection all mothers are held to. “This idea of the perfect mother… it’s something so difficult to achieve.” She pauses. “It’s so difficult to achieve because there’s no such thing as the perfect mother, just like there’s no such thing as the perfect astronaut.” In the film, one of the other astronauts training with Sarah is also a parent, but that fact is brushed off while people are surprised to learn that Sarah is willing to be apart from her daughter.

“I don’t think you have to be an astronaut to struggle with that kind of dilemma between your family and your dream,” says Winocour. “But I was wondering why you never see that kind of dilemma in films and I think it might be because women don’t talk about it: if they have children, they know it’s considered as a weakness if you’re in the professional world.

“And it was important to make a film about the separation of a mother and a daughter because the daughter is also in a kind of prison that is the mother’s dream,” she continues. “There’s a kind of relief from the separation. With Sarah, I wanted to explore this feeling of guilt that society makes you feel, that you have to choose between your career and dreams or your children. It’s not something that’s really disappeared. I wanted to show how hard it is but that it was still possible. It was really the idea of liberation for both characters.”

The sound of Proxima was vital to get right to ground the film in the intimacy of Sarah and Stella’s relationship – something that proved tricky. “The music you associate with space is opera, like 2001: A Space Odyssey,” explains Winocour. “But that sound was too big for the movie, especially as this isn’t a space movie, but a dream of a space movie.”

The legendary Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence; The Last Emperor) was needed to create the sounds of a dream of space. “I’ve always been fascinated by him,” Winocour says. “I saw a documentary about him doing field recordings, like the astronaut in the movie who records the sound of trees because that’s what he misses most in space.”

Sakamoto’s score is heavily influenced by these field recordings and works alongside the film’s sound design that emphasises Sarah’s environment to ground Proxima as truly “earthy”. “The movie is about an attachment to Earth, to people you know right at the moment you’re about to leave the planet,” continues Winocour. “I think Sakamoto could connect with that idea of leaving Earth. He had been sick and almost died a few years ago so I think he could connect to this idea of leaving.”

Leaving is at the heart of Proxima, but Winocour wanted to view this theme from multiple perspectives: how does it feel to leave and how does it feel to be left behind? Is leaving empowering and is being left behind a liberation? In searching for an answer to these questions, Proxima is melancholic in tone, but also optimistic.

“Proxima is the name of the closest galaxy from Earth but it also means ‘the next one’ in Spanish,” explains Winocour. “So with that is the idea of transmission and what you transmit to your daughter. Is this going to be the idea of being the perfect mother or the idea of what is important in life and your dream? The film is about freedom and the beginning of Stella’s life and the beginning of the next generation to come. Separation is liberation at the same time.”

Proxima opens Glasgow Film Festival on 26 Feb (sold out), with an additional screening on 27 Feb, GFT, 1.15pm; Proxima is out in UK and Irish cinemas from 8 May