‘Our film says you can be both: a good mother and a good astronaut’
Anna Winocour’s Proxima challenges the male monopoly on space travel stories
Eva Green in Proxima
Following on the heels of Contact, Gravity and Hidden Figures, Anna Winocour’s Proxima is the latest feminine corrective to a traditionally butch genre. Proxima stars Eva Green, who gives a career-best performance as Sarah, an astronaut who has been chosen to be a part of a year-long space mission. It’s the culmination of years of training and study but, inevitably, it places a strain on Sarah’s relationship with her eight-year-old daughter Stella (Zélie Boulant).
“It’s a film about the dream of space,” says Winocour. “The attraction for me is the world of space. I’ve been fascinated by space since I was a little girl. But I didn’t know anything about it. So the process for me was discovering why I was attracted to that world.
“What I did know about was the very complex relationship between a mother and daughter. It’s something I know very well because I’m a mother myself. I have a little girl who is the same age as the girl in the movie. Space was a way to talk about that. The separation that a rocket goes through as it journeys beyond the atmosphere is called umbilical separation by the Russian space agency. And we call our own planet Mother Earth.”
In the character of Sarah, Winocour, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jean-Stéphane Bron, has fashioned a new kind of protagonist, one who juggles motherhood and astrophysics, gruelling physical training and everyday sexism. When her American mission leader (Matt Dillon) welcomes her to the team, he suggests that, being a French woman, she must be a great cook; he later dismisses her as a space tourist.
While researching the script, a female trainer at the European Space Agency told the director that the male astronauts talk proudly about their children while the women tend to conceal the fact that they are mothers.
“My first idea was to make a film about a superheroine who is also a mother,” says Winocour. “They are two things that are not represented in cinema together. I think women don’t talk about it, because they are made to feel guilty. It is a construction of society that you have to choose between your career and your kids. I wanted to show how hard it is for women, but the worst obstacles are the obstacles that women have inside themselves.
“Society makes you think that you have to choose between your career and having children. Our film says that you can be both: a good mother and a good astronaut.”
In order to join the Proxima Mission – which will take European Space Agency employee Sarah to the International Space Station for a year as it prepares a manned probe for Mars – Sarah travels to Star City outside of Moscow for preparation. In order to tackle the role, Eva Green met female astronauts Samantha Cristoforetti and Claudie Haigneré, trained extensively and made several trips to Star City and the European Space Agency in Cologne.
Winocour’s preparations were more extensive and required negotiations with the European Space Agency and the Russian Space Agency so that she might gain access to Star City, the world’s most advanced space training facility, where American, Japanese and European astronauts all train, and the Cosmodrome in Baikonur.
“It took two years to write the script and for those two years I was constantly travelling from Cologne where the European Space Agency to Star City – which is in the middle of a forest 1½ hours from Moscow. And also Baikonur in Kazakhstan, from where they launch rockets. There were two parts to getting authorisation. At the very beginning I went to to see the European Space Agency to ask them if they would be okay to be partners and to collaborate with the film. Because we need their support to be able to shoot in real training facilities.
The screenplay is littered with small details taken from the astronauts Winocour spoke to
“At first they were a bit amazed by this request because these have been really closed spaces and astronauts are really training there. But I explained to them that there are so many movies about Nasa. And that American movies have monopolised the representation of space travel. And that we needed the European movie about these preparations. So they thought that was something interesting for them. Afterwards it was quite difficult to get authorisation from the Russian Space Agency and the Kazakh Space Agency – because they’re all different agencies.”
Happily, at Star City Winocour’s crew were granted the same level of passes as the scientists who worked there, which allowed for access to the prophylactorium, where real-life astronauts train. The film-maker additionally sought advice from the French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, who was preparing for his first flight.
“It was like discovering a different world for us,” says the writer-director. “The exoskeleton you see Eva with at the beginning of the film: that’s a real exoskeleton that is a prototype from the European Space Agency for travel to Mars. Because you have to have bodies that will work in all conditions. In that way at the beginning Eva is a bit like a cyborg. She has to become a space person in order to go into space. But the more she becomes a space person, the more she feels attached to the Earth. That’s the paradox.”
The screenplay is littered with small details taken from the astronauts Winocour spoke to. The heroine’s Russian crewmate, Anton (Aleksey Fateev), records nature sounds so that he can take them with him into space.
“I get asked about the astronauts all the time,” says Winocour. “They are interesting. They’re not really grounded. They’re already in space. They are not earthbound. They never complain. They think that everything is possible. They don’t see that failure is an option. It’s a mental set.
“In a way, astronauts are a bit like special forces soldiers. They have the same training. They’re very strong people and when they look at movies and space, they laugh. Because those movies tend to show things that they deal with everyday. Like crashing. And that was one reason I chose Eva. Because she is not of this world. That is why she is in all those Tim Burton movies.”
This is not the first time that Winocour has immersed herself in a project. For Disorder, her 2015 thriller concerned a recently discharged soldier Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts) struggling with PTSD, she interviewed dozens of soldiers returning from war.
“I love to discover new worlds,” she says. “And I love actors that have a strangeness about them. I think I can relate more to them and I’m more attracted to them. I also like actors that are really physical like Matthias and Eva because I’m obsessed with our relationships with the body.”
Psycho was really the film of my childhood. I know it’s a bit weird, but that was the film that obsessed me and my little brother
Winocour was born in Paris. She graduated from La Fémis and directed the short films Kitchen (2005), Magic Paris (2007) and Pina Colada (2009). Her first two features, Augustine (2012) and Disorder (2015), premiered at Cannes, as did highly decorated Mustang (2015) which she co-wrote with director Deniz Gamze Ergüven. She attributes her lifelong love of film to half-watched videos, Hitchcock’s Psycho, and Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities.
“Since my childhood I have watched a lot of Hitchcock movies,” she says. “But Psycho was really the film of my childhood. I know it’s a bit weird, but that was the film that obsessed me and my little brother. We would watch it up to three times a day. We had games about the film. We played the characters.
“Then I discovered Frances Ford Coppola and Wim Wenders. My mother brought me to Alice in the Cities around that time I was supposed to choose the second language I had to study at school. I didn’t want to learn German because of the Jewish origins of my family. But my mother told me: oh, you have to see that film and you will see German can be a beautiful language.
“So that was a movie that was really important for me. And also because the little girl’s name was Alice.”
Proxima is on limited release from July 31st