Proxima is one of the best acquisition titles at TIFF19. Director Alice Winocour discusses drawing a connection between motherhood and space exploration.
“The idea of the separation from Earth resonate[s] with the idea of the separation from the little girl,” Alice Winocour told me, regarding her outstanding new film, Proxima. Eva Green plays Sarah, an astronaut in training who is chosen to take part in a space mission, something all astronauts dream of but many never get to do. When she tells her ex-husband (Lars Eidinger), who is also a colleague, all she has to do is beam at him, and he knows what’s happened. Nothing else could make Sarah this happy.
But there are complications:, namely, Sarah’s young daughter, Stella. Sarah will be away from Earth and from her daughter for a whole year. But this isn’t a film about whether or not Sarah decides to leave; there’s never any doubt that she will go. Sarah adores her job, she’s fantastic at it, and the film never judges her for wanting to do what she loves. Stella will be fine in the hands of her father, who’s capable and loving, so Sarah doesn’t have to worry about her little girl’s well-being while she’s gone. In fact, there’s very little traditional conflict in Proxima. But that doesn’t make it any less gripping.
To watch a woman excel in a STEM field, especially in a job as glorified as that of an astronaut, is incredibly exciting. Sarah trains with a group entirely comprised of men, such as the slightly chauvinistic American astronaut played by Matt Dillon. At the same time, all the women at the Russian training base are delighted to see her there: the woman who shows Sarah to her room fawns over her, naming all the female astronauts who came before her, delighted that Sarah is furthering their legacy. Scenes of Sarah at work reveal just how much happiness she finds in her job: in these joyful sequences, Winocour’s camera is particularly mobile, and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s gorgeous score swells with a sense of feverish excitement.
Winocour, who researched the film thoroughly and shoots entirely in real space training camps, reveals the sexism that women in STEM face from their predominantly male colleagues. Sarah must deal with this treatment level-headedly while quietly excelling at her job and doing the hard work required to gain respect from her male colleagues. Ultimately, this is not the story of a mother abandoning her child, but the story of a mother whose passion and brilliance is an inspiration to her daughter.
At TIFF 2019, I sat down with Winocour, who spoke about the years of research that went into making Proxima, why she loved working with Eva Green, and why themes of motherhood and space exploration go hand in hand.
Seventh Row (7R): What came first: making a film about motherhood or making a film about space?
Alice Winocour: It was really concurrent. I wanted to explore this relationship between a mother and daughter, and at the same time, I was reading all of these things about space. Then, I had this idea of the character of an astronaut.
Everything made sense, because the idea of the separation from Earth would resonate with the idea of the separation from the little girl. I wanted to confront the endlessness of space but also really tiny things like the intimacy of the mother and daughter relationship.
7R: It’s interesting because the themes of the film could easily be transplanted to a more mundane setting.
Alice Winocour: I love to explore worlds. In my first film, Augustine (2013), I was exploring a historic world, and I read so many books about it. My second film, [Disorder (2015)], was about a traumatised soldier, so I met many soldiers, as well. To me, it was really challenging to go and meet all those astronauts.
I like to explore worlds, but then I like to mix it with something really intimate. I think, in a way, the only way to talk about my intimacy is to project myself into a different universe — something that is completely new that I need to investigate.
7R: Tell me a bit about that research process.
Alice Winocour: I took a train to Cologne where the base for the European space agency is. There are so many journalists that go there because there is this space attraction. I stayed there for a long time, and they understood that it was something serious.
For two years, I was living in, going to, and visiting these training centres, working with trainers and astronauts. I’ve met more than ten astronauts, like the Canadian Julie Payette, Claudie Haigneré from France, Russian astronauts… women, but also men. And Americans, even Chris Cassidy, the head of NASA. Also astrophysicists, because it’s all of this world. It’s on military bases; you have to cross checkpoints and pass authorisation to get there. We had a great opportunity to be able to shoot over there. It’s very rare.
It was like I discovered the world of space people. They are not on Earth anymore, and to me, there were similarities with the world of cinema. I could recognise things: this passion and also all these amazing teams. Astronauts are followed by doctors, by trainers, by so many different people.
The idea of the film was to shoot in those real places, in the real training centres. There are no recreated sets. There are no models. Everything that you see in the film is true. People say, “That’s really different from what we usually see in films!” This representation of [astronauts as] superhumans [in other films] is not the reality. Even American astronauts, when it’s time to leave the Earth, they leave from Star City in Russia.
7R: Did you discover anything surprising that changed the course of the film?
Alice Winocour: What was surprising was this idea that they [astronauts] were so fragile. In those [other] films, you see them as superheroes and superhumans as if it is really easy to leave the Earth. The reality is very different.
Space is not for humans, and the conditions in space are really inhuman. You lose your sense of balance; you grow from three to four inches. All of those things are something that is not usually shown in film.
When you leave Earth, so many things are missing. The sound of the birds, the sound of the forest. What we see in the film, [when an astronaut records sounds of the forest to take up into space with him,] it’s a real thing that an astronaut has told me that he was doing.
7R: When Seventh Row interviewed you for Disorder, you stated, “I’m really interested in traumatised and dysfunctional bodies.” I think that’s interesting because Sarah is sort of the opposite.
Alice Winocour: Ah, you think?
7R: She has to be a perfect physical specimen to go into space.
Alice Winocour: I’m interested in our relationship to bodies. Cinema is thrilling for me when it gets physical. The relationship to your body was also the subject of my first film, which featured these very violent fits. It was the rebellion of the body when you don’t have any words to rebel with.
[In Proxima,] I’m filming the mutation of [Sarah’s] body , with her as a guinea pig and all of those experiments that are made on her. You see Sarah’s body being moulded into her chair for the spacecraft, as if she were in a coffin. All of that stuff was really exciting to me, as a director. Like everyone, I’m really a great fan of the director [David] Cronenberg. He makes things so sensorial and physical. That’s the type of cinema I aspire to.
Astronauts are like mutants. They have to become space people in order to be able to live in space. It was this idea of violence that was made to the body, if not by herself… I mean, she [Sarah] was accepting this violence [toward her body].
What I like about Eva [Green] is she’s a kind of mutant herself, as an actress. She can really control her emotions. In one of the first shots, we see her exercising with this artificial arm, which is an exo-skeleton. I had this idea that she was a machine already. But it’s like a story of a machine that becomes an emotional mother who is overwhelmed by her feelings.
7R: While the film is about the emotions of a mother having to leave her child, the film never judges Sarah for making the choice to leave. There are plenty of scenes where we see how much she loves her job, and we are allowed to revel in that joy.
Alice Winocour: I have a daughter who is ten. What makes this so hard is that if it’s your passion, you don’t have a choice; you have to do it. Some astronauts train all of their lives, and they don’t have this opportunity to go up there.
Her job is like making a movie: it’s super hard, but at the same time, it’s so rewarding. I really wanted to present her as a good astronaut. She’s good at what she does, she’s passionate, and she doesn’t hesitate one minute. She has to go.
The idea was to say that we can do both. We don’t have to choose. I think that there’s still a lot of women that think they have to choose between their career and their children. They want to raise children, and society says that if you want to do that, then you have to choose. Women have to live with this feeling of guilt that is so hard.
7R: You said of Matthias Schoenaerts in Disorder that you “like physical actors that have this animality.” Would you say this is true of Eva Green?
Alice Winocour: Yeah. I love those kinds of actors who can express things with their bodies and who can form a kind of sensuality when they get physical.
Also, Eva worked very hard to train and to get muscles. That’s another thing that is really hard for women astronauts: they have to adapt for a world made by men for men. The space suits are designed for men who are stronger on the shoulders, whereas women are stronger on the hips. But [the women] still have to train with those space suits.
7R: Could you talk about your approach to sound design in the film?
Alice Winocour: Sound and music are so important. I worked with [Ryuichi] Sakamoto, the composer, on the film. He’s also really interested in sound design; he was recording sounds of nature like the astronauts [do] in the film. We used that sound in the music. We worked for three months with Sakamoto to find the right minimalist score that uses the sounds of Earth.
To me, sound is sometimes more important than the image. I love to work with the sound of the body, all the tiny details that feel so immersive and physical. I paid a lot of attention to this, as well as the real sounds of the machines all around Sarah and the sounds of nature all around her.