SSIFF interview: Alice Winocour (Proxima)

One of the films competing for the Golden Shell at the San Sebastian International Film Festival is Proxima by Alice Winocour, starring Eva Green as an astronaut who struggles with the relationship with her young daughter, played by Zélie Boulant-Lemesle. After its screening Cédric Succivalli sat down with the French director to talk about space and Earth, superheroes and motherhood, the challenges of women in space programs, and the influence of David Cronenberg.

CS: There’s a line in the film that sums up the entire film for me: “There is no such thing as a perfect astronaut, like there is no such thing as a perfect mother.” To me that underlines the idea of womanhood, femininity, motherhood, and space. It is like the genesis of the film to me. Can you tell me a bit about that line and that idea?

AW: I couldn’t have said it more perfectly, for me that is exactly the line of the film. I wanted to show that you can be a superheroine and a mother at the same time, and usually these two don’t co-exist in a single person in cinema. Superheroines don’t have children, Catwoman is not a mother. They don’t have children to divert them from the mission. But in real life they do have children, and most of the time they do most of the job. They feel responsible for their children, and so I thought it was time cinema should talk about it. The reason why cinema is silent about this is because women themselves don’t talk about it. I think it’s because they feel that having children is a weakness. The world of the film is of course bigger than life, but it’s the same thing in companies and in daily life. It is considered a weakness because you will not be able to fully focus, you will have to leave earlier, and so on. So women don’t talk about it. A trainer in ESA, the European Space Agency, told me that male astronauts keep talking about their children a lot. They are very proud that they are astronauts and at the same time have families. But she also had been training a female astronaut for six months, and only at the end of the training she found out that she was a mother, and no one knew about it. So to me the film is a story about liberation. It says you can do both, even if it’s hard. I think for women it’s harder, even though things are changing, because they have to live with this feeling of guilt. Society makes you feel like you are supposed to be in charge of the children, and if you don’t or if you share this ‘mission’, you feel like a bad mother. That is why this quote to me is so important, the idea that there is no such thing as the perfect mother. What is better, to be the perfect mother who doesn’t exist, or to follow your dream? To me it is also in the title of the film, Proxima, which is the closest galaxy to our own. But being in Spain at the moment, it also means ‘the next one’, so there is also this idea of transmission, of passing on to your daughter. To come back to womanhood: I think all of the things that are related to women are still a little frightening. It’s harder for women, not only because of this feeling of guilt but also because they constantly have to adapt to a world told by men. NASA had to abandon an activity for two female astronauts recently because there were not enough spacesuits in size Medium. But even worse, spacesuits are really designed for men: broad shoulders, narrower hips. And still women have to train in them! So to me the spacesuit is a metaphor of this idea of having to adjust to a men’s world, and still prove that they are capable enough and more.

CS: You mentioning Spain and the word ‘Proxima’, and speaking of language and motherhood and children: the name Stella (ed: the name of Eva Green’s daughter in the film) in Italian means ‘star’. A bit of an obvious question, but did you consciously think about that? 

AW: Of course, there are a lot of references like this in the film. But at the same time I wanted the girl to be very much connected to Earth. For example the mother is more overtly a space person. That’s why I chose Eva Green. It’s not a coincidence that she was in so many Tim Burton movies, there is this strangeness to her that I really love. She is not really on Earth, you know, like an astronaut, a bit ethereal. So the daughter to me had to have a name of a star but to be also grounded. We see also that everything in the world of Sarah (Eva Green) is related to space. Her cat is named Laika! And it is hard for the girl because she is in her mother’s dream. It’s the story of the liberation of a mother, but also of the liberation of a little girl. At the end of the film there is this shot of horses, real wild horses that we found in Kazakhstan. For me that was a strong image of freedom and of this little girl’s life beginning.

CS: It was really a cathartic ending. Parts of the audience were in tears, myself included. And unexpected, I didn’t think the film would go there. I thought you would end on that last shot of space.

AW: There is this darkness when the mother is not there, almost like death. When I cast the little girl I saw 300 girls, but when I saw Zélie Boulant-Lemesle I fell completely in love. When I started to investigate this world of space I realized it was something really intimate that connected me to the subject of mother and daughter. Because I am a mother myself, and also a daughter, I really wanted to talk about this subject. I saw a bit of myself in this character of this little girl, and Zélie looks really like me when I was young, more than my own daughter in a way! I put a lot of sensations and memories from my own childhood in the character, hiding under the table and listening to boring conversations or spying little boys from the window. It’s kind of a love story between these two characters, but we really follow the paths of both of them.

CS: Something that really struck me is the very special score by Ryuichi Sakamoto. I saw a documentary on him in Venezia two years ago, Coda, where you see him going into the wilderness to record sound. I was fascinated by the soundscape of the film, not just the score but also the mixing. Completely transfixing.

AW: We worked really hard on this together with Ryuichi. He really loved the Russian character who records the sound of nature, because that is something he does himself. I wanted the film to be a celebration of Earth more than a space movie. All these little sounds you normally don’t pay attention to, the sound of birds or the wind in the trees, all those sounds are missing in space. A real astronaut told me he recorded sounds of the forest because he missed those in space. So Ryuichi worked very hard with us on those sounds to create this sort of score of Earth, a very grounded score. Not your typical Kubrick-like, operatic space score, it had to be more fragile and sounds of Earth.

CS: There is an element of physicality and carnality in the film that was very striking: reminded me of Cronenberg’s Crash. The way your bodies are being described is very unique, in particular in French cinema. Was that a specific influence?

AW: I’m glad that you noticed this, it’s my favorite film on Earth. There is to me really something important about this mutation. To me Cronenberg is such a huge influence. I’m fascinated by a film that gets physical and carnal. The documentary in my film was hitting on that guinea pig aspect, filming her body trapped and with all these biopsies, like Rosanna Arquette in Crash. Filming this mutation of her, because she is becoming a space person. You see her taking a betadine shower, a kind of orange creature. And all the stuff with the artificial arm, like an exo-skeleton, to me that was something that really had to be physical, because that is the kind of cinema that I like and am in love with.

Photo by Pascal Le Segretain – © 2015 Getty Images – Image courtesy