Down to earth with Alice Winocour

French director to attend Glasgow Film Festival gala opening

by Richard Mowe

Eva Green and Zélie Boulant-Lemesle play mother and daughter in Alice Winocour’s Proxima
Eva Green and Zélie Boulant-Lemesle play mother and daughter in Alice Winocour’s Proxima Photo: Unifrance
For someone who has boldly gone in to Space where few female directors previously have ventured, you might expect France’s Alice Winocour to be completely fearless. Yet she admits that she had difficulties reaching the top-floor suite of a luxury hotel in Paris for our interview as part of the Unifrance Rendezvous with French Cinema because she suffers from claustrophobia.

“I could never have been an astronaut - I already had enough trouble getting to the sixth floor of this building, never mind anything else. I can live the experience through the film. Fiction is good in that way,” she says.

Winocour has a select filmography starting with Augustine which was presented in the Cannes Film Festival Critics’ Week in 2012, a sensuous period drama and then Disorder, a jangling thriller about a war veteran with post traumatic stress and shown in Cannes Un Certain Regard in 2015.

Now in Proxima (which will open Glasgow Film Festival on 26 February in her presence) she turns her attention to the universe of women astronauts, using it as a metaphor to explore the relationship between a mother and daughter at its core. “I did not know anything about that world but discovered it while making the film. The interesting thing about my job is that you discover stories and enter new worlds. The more it is intimate to me the more it has to be far way such as different centuries in my first film Augustine or the conflicts of soldiers in Disorder. Through these journeys,= you discover more about yourself,” she says.

She describes it as a feminist film. “Space used to be such a man’s world. There have been strong females but they never have children. If they did have children then they were finished. In the real world though women have children - so I received many moving messages from American female astronauts who said they were so happy that last last there was a film that showed you can be a good mother and a good astronaut as well. It was very touching.

“It is important for cinema to talk about such matters because often women don’t talk about it either. In some professional worlds having children is still considered a weakness. It is thought that you will not be focused, you will ask for more holidays or want to leave work earlier. There are questions around being a woman and having periods. Often women do not talk about so I felt it was time that cinema should throw some light on the subject. It is a construction of society that you have to choose between your career and your kids. I think what the film says is that you can be a good mother and a good astronaut.

“I thought the figure of the astronaut separating from the Earth could resonate with the idea of a mother separating from her daughter. The script reflects the different stages of separation that a rocket goes through as it journeys beyond the atmosphere. It's not only my imagination, because the actual protocol of the Russian space agency calls it ‘umbilical separation’. There is also that expression calling our planet Mother Earth, so it's a metaphor for this attachment.”

Director Alice Winocour: 'I could never have been an astronaut - I already had enough trouble getting to the sixth floor of this building...'
Director Alice Winocour: 'I could never have been an astronaut - I already had enough trouble getting to the sixth floor of this building...'
Winocour travelled to the European Space Centre in Cologne to start her research. She encountered astronauts (including Frenchman Thomas Pesquet who was preparing for his first flight) and trainers as well as Claudie Haignéré, the first French female astronaut who also was a mother and married to a Russian cosmonaut. “American cinema has done so many films about NASA which is all about the conquest of Space and is full of testosterone with no place for fragility. I thought that what I observed was so very different from what is often described. The paradox of the astronaut is that you are constantly confronted with the fragility of the human body which is designed to live on this planet whereas the conditions in space are terrible.

“There was an obvious parallel between the worlds of cinema and space exploration. In both instances, the preparation is very long, with the goal a distant dream, and the public sees only the tip of the iceberg. Just like on space flights, there’s a whole crew of skilled people working behind the scenes on movies. We shot at real facilities—ESA in Cologne, then at Star City near Moscow and finally at the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch site in Kazakhstan.”

She chose Eva Green for the role of the mother Sarah even thought she has no maternal experience. The qualities of the actress she admired were her “strangeness and grace”. She noted that Green seemed to strive to be the best possible mother she could be while preserving an air of normality. The role of Stella, the daughter was considerably more complicated. She saw around 300 girls before making the choice of Zélie Boulant-Lemesle. “What appealed to me was that Zélie also had that geeky aspect of a child who didn’t fit any mould. I even thought of my own daughter who at 10 was roughly the right age and asked her. She turned it down, saying if I ever do want to be in a film some day I would chose to be directed by someone else. I was happy in the end that she had come to that decision on her own!”

Besides Green and Boulant-Lemesle Winocour put together an international cast who all speak different languages, from American Matt Dillon, Germans Lars Eidinger and Sandra Hüller, and Russian Alexei Fateev. “I love to work with different languages,” says Winocour whose accented English is almost word perfect. “There is an exhilarating mix of acting styles and cultures which is a very European thing and so cool.” Sensing a certain Brexit elephant in the room she apologises for raising it.

On being told that her film has been chosen for the prestigious opening slot at the Glasgow Film Festival she becomes quite emotional. “I am so proud. I have never been to Glasgow or even Scotland for that matter so I am extremely excited and super-surprised.”

Winocour has the sort of personality that manages to wipe out the bad from the memory bank and only preserve the good. “Making films is a bit like having children and I only have one so far. If you remembered the pain of it all you might not have another one. I manage to forget it all completely and the same goes for films. I am already on another one with the script just finished. So I am about to give birth all over again but this time it is set in Paris and much closer to home.”

With that parting shot Winocour prepares herself for the return elevator journey to planet Earth.

Proxima by Alice Winocour has been selected for a UK premiere as the opening film at the 16th annual Glasgow Film Festival on 26 February in the presence of the director. The Festival will close on 8 March with UK premiere of the big screen adaptation of Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl directed by Coky Giedroyc. This is the first time that the opening and closing slots have been taken by major features directed by women.

It will be released in the UK by Picturehouse on 17 April.

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