SHE may have made just three full-length films, but 44-year-old French writer-director Alice Winocour has already featured at Cannes, cast Hollywood A-listers and established a very particular way of working, one in which she examines a deeply personal subject but through the prism of a character who couldn’t be more different to her. In a European arthouse scene dripping with films that are pointedly and nakedly autobiographical, it’s an approach which is refreshingly oblique and which takes viewers far beyond the confines of her world and theirs.

In her 2012 debut Augustine, about 19th century neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot and his most famous subject Louise Augustine Gleizes, she takes the male gaze and turns the mirror around to show events from the distaff point of view. In second film Disorder, the subject under the microscope is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Winocour suffered PTSD after the difficult birth of her daughter, but in her film she inflicts it not a new mother but on a black-suited army veteran-turned-bodyguard who finds himself having to deal with a violent home invasion in order to protect the family of his wealthy employer.

Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Disorder featured in the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Un Certain Regard strand and during the extensive research and writing process she and Schoenaerts worked closely with a soldier who had suffered PTSD. “He became almost like a brother,” says Winocour over a Zoom call from her home in Paris. “Of course I’ve never been Afghanistan, I’ve never been to war, but PTSD is like being close to death so I had been as exposed as him, as close to death. What’s exciting to me about cinema is discovering a world you don’t know, but also discovering yourself.” Her other notable film credit is as a co-writer on Mustang, the debut feature by France-based director Deniz Gamze Ergüven and a searing broadside against the treatment of girls and women in Ergüven’s native Turkey. It won her a César award, the French equivalent of an Oscar.

Winocour’s third film as director is Proxima. In some ways it’s a follow-on from Disorder in that it deals with a working single mother trying to balance her career with the needs of her young daughter. The difference is that Sarah, the mother in question, is an astronaut with the European Space Agency and the big break she is handed at the start of the film is a place on a lengthy mission to the International Space Station. It will in turn lay the scientific groundwork for a crewed mission to Mars. The name of the mission: Proxima

Tim Burton regular Eva Green, currently starring in The Luminaries on television, plays Sarah. Newcomer Zélie Boulant-Lemesle is Stella, the eight-year-old daughter Sarah is forced to leave in the hands of her ex-partner Thomas (Lars Eidinger), a gentle German astrophysicist working for the European Space Agency (ESA) at its facilities in Darmstadt and Cologne. His speciality is Venus (“I’m always a planet ahead of your mother,” he tells Stella at one point).

Starring alongside Green are Matt Dillon, as macho American astronaut Mike, and Aleksey Fateev, as Russian cosmonaut Anton. Along with Sarah they will form the three-strong launch crew, though if there’s equality in space there’s little on the ground: Mike appears suspicious of Sarah’s ability and evokes a furious response from her when he suggests she have a lighter training schedule than the men. But from those difficult beginnings the relationship thaws and, as she does with the character of Thomas, Winocour shows the complexity and vulnerability beneath Mike’s male bluster. Dillon, twinkle-eyed but every-so-slightly smarmy, is perfect for the role.

“Every time it’s the same thing – I’m attracted to a world and then I realise while I’m writing what drove me to it,” says Winocour, explaining the starting point for Proxima. “This one was just a world I wanted to discover, and I came up with this idea of a character, a female astronaut, and I thought it was an interesting character because this idea of separation from the earth, which every astronaut has to experience, could resonate with a personal story of separation from a daughter. It was those two levels that were critical to me.”

Much of the filming took place on location at Star City, the centre near Moscow which has trained cosmonauts since the 1960s and where Winocour and her crew were surrounded by real astronauts, and at Baikonaur, a cosmodrome in the steppes of Kazakhstan where ESA launches take place. Winocour was able to film several. “It’s an intense experience. It’s exhilarating and at the same time really frightening,” she says. “I can’t imagine how it is when it’s your own mother, or when you’re a child.”

One thing Proxima is not, however, is a science fiction film. Personal tensions rise between Sarah and her colleagues and, as in Disorder, Winocour shows she isn’t afraid of an action sequence – there are some heart-in-the-mouth scenes in which a space-suited Sarah practises rescue scenarios underwater and against the clock, or pushes herself to near life-threatening levels of pressure in the spinning centrifuge. The drama, though, stays almost entirely earthbound.

“The real thing I wanted to talk about was the relationship between a mother and daughter,” says Winocour. “I had travelled a lot for the promotion of my films, and for the shooting I had been away for a long time and felt guilty about it. I wanted to explore this relationship because I have a daughter who’s the same age as the daughter in the film. I felt more comfortable to talk about this very intimate thing in a very unknown world, or through something very far away from me. In French cinema a lot of people have a kind of autobiographical way of telling stories, but to me the more it is intimate, the more it has to be far away.”

Would she say, then, that Proxima is her most personal film to date?

“All of my films are very personal. Disorder was very intimate. It was about PTSD, which I had experienced myself … It was giving birth to my daughter. I almost died because I had a very serious illness, and also my daughter almost died from it. So I spent a lot of time in the hospital. I guess this film also is probably inspired by that story because of course it’s about separation. Because of that illness, we were separated too early.”

Proxima’s closing titles are intercut with photographs of the great many women of all nationalities who have gone into space, mostly pictured with the families they either left behind or were about to say goodbye to. As is typical, Winocour’s research for Proxima was extensive, a two-year period in which she travelled regularly to the ESA centre in Cologne. During it she interviewed most of those female astronauts. “There were many different point of views, but all of them said that being an astronaut was harder for women than for men.”

In one scene, Sarah is asked by a medic whether she intends to continue to menstruate while on board the ISS. She says she does and in reply is informed that tampons will be added to her equipment but their weight deducted from whatever passes for personal baggage allowance. It’s a brief scene but one with importance for Winocour. “It’s something I don’t see much in films,” she says. “I think it’s a very important part of the life of women, having periods, but it’s something we’re told to remain silent about. I think it’s time cinema should break that silence.”

An intense, personal drama with thrilling interludes and an almost documentary feel at points, Proxima draws powerful performances from both Green and Boulant-Lemesle, but it ends on a note of symbolism and redemption.

“Society makes you think that as a woman you have to choose between your personal life and having children and having a career,” says Winocour. “I think that’s a question that’s in the film: as a mother, do you have to try to be perfect, the person your mother or grandmother told you that you should be? Or is it more important to think that being a good mother is showing that what’s important in life is following your dreams and doing what you were made for? I think the film gives the answer. It’s a story of liberation because the mother goes for the dream.”

Proxima is released on July 31