CineWomen: Alice Winocour explores women in science in ‘Proxima’ and ‘Augustine’

Plus ‘Coded Bias’ by Shalini Kantayya and ‘Monsoon Wedding’ by Mira Nair

I walked down to The Grove on Wednesday to raid the Criterion half-off sale at Barnes & Noble and, while dodging the lines snaking out of the Cheesecake Factory and Apple Store, just about burst into tears.

Apparently I hadn’t passed by a movie theater since March.

There, on the Pacific Theatres marquee, were banners for “The Invisible Man” and “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “The Hunt” — a time capsule from March 2020. I felt like I was in a post-apocalyptic movie where civilization stopped while cheesecake and iPhones went on.

I felt the same catch in my chest while reading Kenny Turan’s account in the Los Angeles Times of renting out a movie theater in Polson, Montana, to see Tenet on the big screen — a film I’ve still yet to see. Reading about his experience watching trailers for the postponed James Bond flick No Time to Die and Marvel’s Black Widow — “I was wholly unprepared for the jolt, the freight-train whoosh of adrenaline that barreled into me,” he wrote — I thought, I’d have sobbed.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been seeing scads of movies. I watch a film most days.

But when you’ve got ambient light reflecting off your TV and neighbors yammering out on the street and Instagram to scroll when whatever’s onscreen is too discomforting to watch directly, it’s not — to make an understatement — the same.

Eva Green (left) stars in “Proxima” as an astronaut struggling with leaving her eight-year-old daughter back on Earth. Photo credit: Vertical Entertainment

‘Proxima’

Alice Winocour’s drama Proxima takes its name from the star that’s closest to our sun, more than four light years away. For her first mission, French astronaut Sarah Loreau (Eva Green) won’t travel nearly as far — she’s been selected to spend a year on the International Space Station — but it sure feels that way, as she’ll be leaving her eight-year-old daughter Stella (Zélie Boulant) back on Earth.

Of course astronauts both male and female have been doing this for decades, leaving their families behind to strap themselves to rockets bound for outerspace. But Winocour makes the argument — amid extremely detailed documentary-esque preparations — that it’s harder for women. Her American captain Mike Shannon (Matt Dillon) has kids too, but he has a wife who is their primary caregiver. For Sarah, leaving Earth means leaving Stella with her ex, and watching during her extensive trainings as her daughter finds independence and bonds with her father.

Meanwhile, Sarah travels to Star City near Moscow, where their rocket will lift off, to finish her training — granting fascinating insight into the physical, psychological, and emotional preparations required of people who’ve already been planning their whole lives for this moment. The arrival of a female astronaut still elicits excitement at the facility and requires special considerations — like the inclusion of tampons among her allotment of personal items. Sarah is a pro — but also just so delighted by all of it.

Yet, she struggles. Her captain is skeptical — no, just sexist. The tasks are physically taxing. And she misses her child, caught in that conundrum so many ambitious women face of sacrificing time with their daughters in order to show them what’s possible.

It’s hard to watch. Women want their barrier-breaking heroines to be strong when confronted with a challenge, to triumph in the face of doubt — at least I do. I was frustrated when she makes some choices near the end that risk everything she’s worked for in what I considered a moment of maternal weakness.

How she gets away with it isn’t explained, but Winocour’s point is that ambition — for individuals and for society — requires sacrifice. More so from women. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. It’s just hard.

Proxima (2019), directed by Alice Winocour (digital)

French singer-songwriter Soko stars as the subject of lascivious scientific inquiry in “Augustine.” Photo credit: Jean Claude Lother/Music Box Films

‘Augustine’

The character at the center of Winocour’s first feature, Augustine, it turns out has a lot in common with Sarah, albeit a century-and-a-half earlier. Here too is a woman in an aggressively physical role in a male-dominated field, poked and prodded in the interest of science, though in this case she’s the subject.

Based on a true story, the period drama explores the case of the titular kitchen maid (French singer-songwriter Soko) who becomes a scientific sensation when her doctor Charcot (Vincent Lindon) diagnoses her with “ovarian hysteria.” He uses hypnosis to induce seizures to impress his colleagues, and Augustine goes along with the circus act because he promises to cure her paralyzed eye and clenched fist.

When she realizes that Charcot isn’t interested in helping her — she’s his star performer, after all — she confronts him in the most public yet intimate way possible that his fascination lies in the sexualization of her condition.

In a film throbbing with candlelit mood and innuendo, Augustine wrests that which we want for our heroines: control over her own fate and vengeance on those who would keep it from her.

Augustine (2012), directed by Alice Winocour (various streaming and digital)

MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini discovers bias in facial recognition technology in “Coded Bias.” Photo credit: 7th Empire Media

‘Coded Bias’

In a scant 90 minutes, Shalini Kantayya’s documentary Coded Bias attempts to explore the expansive topic of inherent prejudice in artificial intelligence (AI): MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini discovers that facial recognition software struggles to accurately identify faces of darker-skinned people and women. Big Brother Watch exposes the use of the technology — and its misidentifications — in the United Kingdom. A Brooklyn tenement is an early adopter for security and surveillance purposes.

From there the film spins out on the broader issue of AI and its application in the firing of beloved teachers, predicting recidivism among ex-cons, and China’s social credit system.

It’s far too big a topic for a single film, especially such a succinct one, and Coded Bias struggles to connect the dots among the various issues.

What it does do, however, is make the case that these technologies, built by the Steve Jobses, Bill Gateses, and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world — that is, white men — have, well, coded bias against women and people of color. It’s immediately noticeable — and laudable — that Kantayya has populated her film with experts who are not white men. In fact, there’s only one man among the scientists, mathematicians, and activists featured, making the case that it’s women, especially women of color, leading the fight for civil rights and ethical applications of technology that’s already being put to widespread use.

Coded Bias (2020), directed by Shalini Kantayya (virtual cinema)

Vasundhara Das stars as the bride in “Monsoon Wedding.”

‘Monsoon Wedding’

The bride (Vasundhara Das) is sleeping with a married television host (Sameer Arya). Her cousin (Shefali Shah) is avoiding their generous American uncle (Rajat Kapoor). The wedding planner (Vijay Raaz) is smitten with the family maid (Tillotama Shome).

These are just some of the shenanigans that take place in the days leading up to Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, perhaps the Indian-American director’s best-known film that falls at about the midpoint of her oeuvre.

With extended family descending on New Delhi from all corners of the globe for a splashy multi-day celebration of this modern arranged marriage, a manic energy courses through crowded rooms and intimate moments.

Monsoon Wedding doesn’t criticize the traditional practice at its center. Rather, the arranged marriage is positioned as the start of a romance — albeit with a bride who’s engaged in an affair with another man right up until her nuptials. (The groom’s sexual history isn’t discussed.) How they navigate the situation speaks to how contemporary couples have adapted the cultural ritual.

Meanwhile, struggling to finance the festivities, the family patriarch (Naseeruddin Shah) is confronted with unsavory evidence against his brother-in-law, who’s helped support the Vermas in the past. What follows is a man grappling with grief — for his niece and her decades-long secret, for his friendship to a man he feels he owes — who belatedly rises to the occasion.

Just in time, too, for viewers to revel in the whirl of color and music, familial love and romance of the titular party.

Monsoon Wedding (2001), directed by Mira Nair (Peacock and digital)

Writer. Reader. Film critic. Moviegoer. Traveler. Hiker. Cook. Besotted aunt to Logan, Titus, and Bodhi. Based in Los Angeles. Socials: @annleee (she/her/hers)