About halfway through Pascal Plante’s film “Nadia, Butterfly,” a young swimmer goes to a party in the Olympic village, decides that she needs to put on some music and selects the Italian national anthem in honor of her hosts, the Italian crew team. But when they ask her to play “O, Canada” in return, she demurs and finds a different anthem: Canadian singer Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated,” which has her singing lustily to the chorus line, “Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?”
It’s an appropriate theme song for the undeniably complicated Nadia, an Olympic swimmer who is retiring in her early 20s but is uncomfortable with the very idea of a life after athletics. But the movie itself doesn’t make her, or her story, any more complicated than it has to be – it’s a restrained and intimate character study that also has an obsessive fascination with the trappings and rituals of high-level athletics.
And “Complicated” is also an apt description of the film’s plight. “Nadia, Butterfly” was the one Canadian entry on the Cannes Film Festival’s official selection for 2020, a roster of 56 films that were chosen for the festival and would have screened there if Cannes hadn’t been canceled because of the coronavirus. Sporting the Cannes 2020 logo, the film will likely screen at other festivals in the fall, but has also screened for select press.
As befits a film that was going to premiere at a festival that was canceled, “Nadia, Butterfly” is set at an Olympic Games that didn’t happen. It takes place at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, which has been pushed back to 2021 because of the pandemic – which, obviously, director Plante couldn’t have anticipated when he used location shooting in Tokyo and sets in Montreal to create his version of the games.
This a world that obviously means a lot to Plante, himself a former competitive swimmer who left the sport at the age of 19. Not only is the film studded with jargon that we pick up in context (“lactate levels,” “1200-meter cool down”), its rituals are depicted casually but carefully. It’s about the people, not the sport, but the details that surround those people all ring true.
It’s also clear as soon as we see the shoulders on his leading lady that Plante has cast athletes. Two-time Olympian Katerine Savard, who plays retiring swimmer Nadia Beaudry, came onto the film as a consultant but won the part – and the other three women on her relay team are also elite swimmers, including Savard’s real-life teammate and training partner, Ariane Mainville, in the role of Nadia’s training partner, Marie-Pierre.
For the first 20 minutes or so, “Nadia, Butterfly” spends a lot of time in the water, first in a practice session and then at the Olympics, where the Canadian relay team takes a surprise bronze medal. Shot by Stephanie Weber Biron, these sequences are beautiful and lyrical when the camera sinks beneath the surface, tense and kinetic when it doesn’t.
The Olympic race itself is particularly gripping, because the camera is always on Nadia, who swims the third of four legs in the relay. At first, it’s all about the nerves, her jittery preparation as the first two swimmers race; we see some of the action in the water, but only in the background or over her shoulder. But when Nadia hits the water, the crowd and the announcer drop away and it’s about every stroke and every breath. The sequence is fresh and strong, and it lingers in the mind when the race, and Nadia’s career, is over.
The whole point of “Nadia, Butterfly,” though, is what happens after; it is, you could say, a fish-out-of-water story. Nadia breaks down in the changing tent, then goes back to her room in the athletes’ village, puts her medal in its box and has to figure out who she’s going to be if she’s no longer a swimmer.
There are no histrionics; Nadia is quiet, and so is the film. She and her teammates sit around in a room, rewatching their race, talking and drinking. The conversation meanders. Nadia is a little sad, a little sullen, a little lost. They’re joined by others from the men’s team, but nobody’s in any hurry to move on, and neither is the film.
But Nadia does eventually move on, through a night of clubbing and partying and drinking and drugs and sex that doesn’t bring her any closer to finding her post-swimming identity. There are times when Savard’s lack of acting experience shows, but she has a haunted look that conveys a lot without too many words.
For much of its running time, the movie plays out in silence; when there’s music, often as not it’s gentle washes of melody as part of an intricate sound design. The film occasionally feels aimless, but it does so quite deliberately because that’s how Nadia sees her life.
At one point, she takes a turn on the team’s massage table and turns it into a therapy session of sorts, telling the massage therapist, “Maybe I have an abusive relationship with swimming.” When the trainer reminds her that swimming has allowed her to travel and see the world, she smiles sadly and says, “I only saw the pools.”
That, in a way, is the whole point of “Nadia, Butterfly”: to show us the part of elite sports that we know about – in this case, the pools – and then move beyond that and force us to look at the part we never see. For all the battles that Nadia wages when she’s in the water, this is a subdued and subtly powerful look at the unexpected perils of dry land.