Most sports films that focus on a single athlete build up to glory. The protagonist, often a real-life legend, goes through grueling training, bites through pain and sacrifice, suffers psychologically, all to reach that one goal at the end of the journey, that one race, that final match. Canadian director Pascal Plante in his second film Nadia, Butterfly, a film that was part of the official selection of the 2020 Cannes Film Festival and is now playing the Roma Film Festival, opts to compress that journey into the first twenty minutes of the film, after which Plante has plenty of time to focus on his central character trying to figure herself out as a person outside of the sport that has kept her in a bubble for over a decade.
Nadia (Katerine Savard) is a top Canadian swimmer who has already decided that she will end her career after her last big tournament, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Her last race will be as part of the medley relay team swimming the butterfly stroke, a straightforward nod given by the title. Her team manages to win the bronze, which leads to a moment of poolside exuberance. Nadia quickly realizes, however, that this is it: the last time she will ever have swum competitively. Now what? Even though she has plans to go back to school, the post-career black hole looms large as she tries to reinvent herself. An alcohol-infused celebration with her teammates leads to even more alcohol as Nadia and her closest friend Marie-Pierre (Ariane Mainville) go clubbing, eventually ending up at a debaucherous after-party where Nadia completely lets herself go. Severely hung over the next morning, she goes through the familiar routine of interviews, team meetings and massages for the last time, then wanders alone through Tokyo. Eventually she ends up with Marie-Pierre for one last heartfelt conversation, a close relationship ending. “I will come watch you race,” Nadia tells her friend, but you can already tell the two will drift apart, Marie-Pierre still fully contained in the close-knit environment of top sports, and Nadia stepping out of it.
That last scene is the closest the film comes to any resolution, but in truth Nadia, Butterfly eschews such a climax, which on the one hand makes the film peter out, yet on the other makes it a lived-in portrait of a young woman who emerges out of a hard shell, ready to spread her wings (the more poetic reading of the title) but not quite knowing how to fly yet. A deepening reflection of this can be seen in Savard, a bronze medalist herself at the 2016 Olympics and in the autumn of her career as a top-tier swimmer. The moments her character goes through will soon have to be faced by Savard herself, and her branching out to acting might be an indication of tentatively spreading her own wings. As a non-professional she brings a certain naturalism to a role that requires a lot of inward gazing and internalizing the character. Savard plays Nadia with a certain listlessness that is at times frustrating but at other points completely appropriate, and there are moments that allow Savard to show she can do more than stoically stare into the distance, like when she has to break down in tears in a changing tent after her final race, or in a furious exchange with her coach in which she exclaims, “Can I have control over my life for once?“, a clear indication of where the character is coming from.
Having top-level swimmers play the most important roles is a masterstroke of a gamble by Plante, himself a former swimmer who tried out but failed to represent his country at the 2008 Games. Like Savard, Mainville is an Olympic medalist, as is Hilary Caldwell (Karen), while the young Cailin McMurray (Jess) isn’t quite on their level yet but is already used to the rigor of professional sports. The way these women handle themselves around the pool and in the comradery before and after a swim is second nature and gives Nadia, Butterfly a strong authenticity. In the film’s most exhilarating sequence, the actual race where we follow the team from the warm-up room to the post-race interview with a strong focus on Nadia, the film becomes almost documentary. But outside these moments which should be bread-and-butter for the actresses, they also handle themselves well in the more ‘acted’ scenes, with Mainville especially showing raw talent in her final scene with Savard.
The screenplay can be somewhat on the nose at times (Savard drunkenly blaring Avril Lavigne’s Complicated is a good example of this), but it does allow for small subtleties that elevate it, as in the slight rift in the team along language lines, with French-speaking Nadia and Marie-Pierre on one side and Karen and Jess on the other. Likewise, Nadia confessing that she never had a boyfriend out of fear of having to take birth control pills, which could lead to weight gain (an obvious negative for an athlete at this level), is a quietly devastating statement on the sacrifices these young people make to reach their goal. All athletes are selfish, Nadia states, a somewhat puzzling opinion at first that leads to a heated conversation with team player Karen. But in essence it is the truth, as these single-mindedly driven people push away everything and everyone to reach for the heights.
Where the film enters surreal territory is in its setting, shot before the postponed Tokyo Games. All credit should go to production designer Joëlle Péloquin and costume designer Renée Sawtelle for creating a disorientingly real image of these doomed Olympics to the point where one wonders if it’s not all VFX (it’s not). Add to that the sound design by the team of Martyne Morin, Olivier Calvert, and Stéphane Bergeron, who create a strong contrast between Nadia’s headspace and the world around it, emphasizing her isolation even within her team.
“Maybe I had an abusive relationship with swimming,” confesses Nadia to her masseur in one of the film’s strongest scenes, a line that succinctly lays a finger on what it is like to be a top athlete. They give up a lot for their sport, too much to be healthy psychologically, which means that when it all ends they can run into a wall. Plante’s film means to highlight this particular aspect of a sporting career, which makes it relatively unique in the genre. Nadia, Butterfly languishes too much at times, but works because both those behind the camera and in front of it know the situation intimately and understand the character motivations, which makes it one of the most honest films in its genre.