'Nadia, Butterfly': Film Review

Nadia, Butterfly- Publicity still- H 2020
Maxime Cormier
A quiet but startling splash.

A competitive swimmer retires from professional sports at her peak right after an Olympic event in Pascal Plante's intimate drama, which was included in the Cannes 2020 selection.

The feverish atmosphere that grips an Olympic host city is so vividly suggested in French Canadian writer-director Pascal Plante's Nadia, Butterfly that you almost forget Tokyo 2020 has been postponed a year to next summer. The immersion is all the more remarkable given the arrestingly intimate nature of this laser-focused drama about a young professional swimmer negotiating the emotional push-pull of her decision to withdraw from competitive sports and take control of her life, directly after experiencing the exhilaration of a major team win on the largest possible world stage.

The film was screened for industry press under the Cannes 2020 banner and will have its festival premiere in the fall, likely leading to international distribution through art-house labels and streaming platforms.

Most movies about the physical rigors and psychological toll that force high-performance athletes to give up their chosen discipline — whether it's swimming, track and field, ballet or any other — tend to focus on the pain and injuries, the punishing schedule, the exhaustion, the disappointments of a career in decline. What makes Plante's drama distinctive is that the decision to quit has already been made both privately and publicly, and the detachment is already in process as Nadia (Katerine Savard) gives an awkward press interview while she's still catching her breath after an individual race toward the close of the Tokyo Summer Olympics. "I guess I'm trying to end on a good note," she says, visibly anxious to step away.

Depending on how you look at it, Plante's screenplay drops us into the story as it's either ending or beginning, or perhaps more accurately in limbo, as Nadia prepares to become a new person. The compressed time frame, covering just two or three days, along with the potent combination of excitement and alienation in the setting, heighten the riveting intensity of this penetrating character study.

The Montreal-based director was a competitive swimmer himself until age 19, which partly explains the personal investment we feel in Nadia's separation anxiety as well as her determination not to change her mind. The casting of real swimmers as all four women competing in the medley relay final that marks Nadia's farewell adds documentary-like authenticity, all of them giving entirely convincing, unselfconscious performances. In a role that calls for much of her turbulence to be internalized, Savard, who is nearing the end of her own professional swimming career, is magnetic. You feel her unease, and both the weight and the release of her decision, at every turn.

Cinematographer Stéphanie Weber Biron's camerawork is crisp and graceful in the opening training session, gliding up and down the lanes as Nadia swims alongside male and female national teammates, while her longtime coach Sébastien (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) shouts instructions from the side of the pool. The periodic underwater shooting is especially beautiful. Following training, the camera hangs back, observing from a cool distance Nadia's post-swim routine of an ice-bath, protein powders, mat stretching and strength exercises. The fatigue written across her face suggests a life of ascetic sacrifice.

The most thrilling sequence is the big event the following day, the 4x100 meter medley relay, where Plante and his DP take an unconventional approach. Nadia swims third, doing the stroke that gives the film its title, and the camera stays on her the entire time, from the team's entry into the pool area, the quick warmup behind the diving block of their lane, the little signs of camaraderie and encouragement among the teammates and each of their laps. Nadia's swim is the only part of the race we follow, even then without the usual cross-cutting to show her position in relation to those of Canada's competitors.

The balance of the sound design, conveying both the noisy participation of the crowd in the stands and the isolation of Nadia in her own headspace is meticulously calibrated.

The briefest glance from Nadia over her shoulder back at the pool as the team wraps up its post-race interview conveys the mixed feelings that will play out, at times with barely contained hostility or sorrow, in the hours and days that follow. In one of the most revealing scenes, she weeps quietly in a changing tent. The medal presentation, the bus back to the Olympic village, watching the replay, partying with her teammates and preparing for a night on the town — all those moments are explored with a piercing gaze held tight on Nadia, with Savard transmitting a constant churn of emotions via minimal means.

Plante establishes the dynamic of the team, bonded in their shared experience yet with a subtle divide between the English speakers, Karen (Hilary Caldwell) and Jess (Cailin McMurray), and French Canadians Nadia and Marie-Pierre (Ariane Mainville), her friend and training partner for the past decade. The director's approach is primarily observational, but the writing is sharp in an interlude where Nadia hurts her teammates' feelings with her comments about the intrinsic selfishness required to succeed in professional athletics, undercutting the collective high of their performance in the pool. Recklessly slugging back booze dulls her filter.

The scenes that follow have some of the dreamy, out-of-body feel of Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, not just because of the Tokyo setting and the use of ambient synth music. (The Japanese location work was done in summer 2019, with the interiors shot in Quebec.) Production designer Joëlle Péloquin and costumer Renée Sawtelle do a convincing job of creating Olympic event and accommodation spaces, as well as team uniforms and even cute Japanese mascots.

Nadia is already smashed and staggering when she and Marie-Pierre get to a club and start doing shots, and a feeling of quiet dread creeps in as an Italian rower (Andrew Di Prata) and a Lebanese fencer (Eli Jean Tahchi) make moves on them. They migrate to an after-party where the women pop MDMA and sing along with raucous abandon to Avril Lavigne's "Complicated."

The sex happens in a drunken haze, and the morning after, Nadia endures what appears to be her very first hangover while also processing more complicated feelings of shame. Earlier, the film touches on the murky gray zone for female pro athletes sexualized by fans as Nadia's face registers embarrassment when she's included in an online roundup of the "30 Hottest Athletes of Tokyo 2020."

After a morning TV interview, she wanders off alone through Tokyo, in one gorgeous sequence entering a videogame arcade and trying her luck with a claw crane to win a mini Olympics mascot. This is perhaps the most overt display of her ambivalence about walking away from sporting glory to go to med school with several potentially strong years of competing still ahead of her.

Nadia's brittle response when people question her decision to quit is smartly underplayed, giving her one explosive exchange with Sébastien — a kind, decent man who has coached her since she was 10 — a wrenching impact magnified by the coach's obvious fondness for her. A quieter, more melancholy conversation with the team's massage therapist (Amélie Marcil) is also moving.

But the emotionally affecting resolution comes during some alone time with Marie-Pierre the morning after the closing ceremony. Mainville, like Savard, is a screen newcomer, and there's a gentle spontaneity to her gradual opening up from jokiness to the sad anticipation of losing a friend who has been her companion through countless training sessions and swim meets all over the world. Plante allows that note of regret to resonate in the air through the anticlimactic bus ride to the airport that provides a perfectly gauged ending.

In some ways, there's almost nothing to Nadia, Butterfly, and you spend much of the film primed for a major revelation that doesn't come. Yet it's fully satisfying, with a haunting interiority that gets under your skin.

Production company: Nemesis Films
Cast: Katerine Savard, Ariane Mainville, Hilary Caldwell, Cailin McMurray, Pierre-Yves Cardinal, John Ralston, Amélie Marcil, Eli Jean Tahchi, Andrew Di Prata, Marie-José Turcotte
Director-screenwriter: Pascal Plante
Producer: Dominique Dussault
Executive producer: Sylvain Corbeil
Director of photography: Stéphanie Weber Biron
Production designer: Joëlle Péloquin
Costume designer: Renée Sawtelle
Editor: Amélie Labrèche
Sound: Martyne Moran, Olivier Calvert, Stéphanie Bergeron
Sales: WaZabi Films

In French and English
107 minutes