Far be it for me to start playing a blame game here, but I do wonder: who or what made it so that a sports story must also be a story of triumph? One assumes Rocky, as the blueprint for almost every underdog story of the last 40 years, had something to do with it — but Rocky’s idea of triumph is a little more nuanced than that. Nevertheless, I cannot think of the last time I saw a movie about an athlete that was not about triumphing at their sport — either through overcoming the odds, defeating a particularly meaningful opponent, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, etc. (The exception might be “coach movies” like The Way Back or maybe something like Michael Ritchie’s Downhill Racer, which posits the absolute bleakest vision of triumph in a sports film.) It became clear watching Pascal Plante’s Nadia, Butterfly that there was a mold to break, because this admittedly pretty straightforward movie feels like it’s rewriting all the rules.
Nadia (real-life Olympic swimmer Katerine Savard) is a world-class swimmer who attends the 2020 Tokyo Olympics having already made up her mind that she’s retiring. Though still capable of excellent performance and young enough to anticipate the next Olympics, Nadia has decided to focus on her studies instead, which means leaving behind the only thing she has ever really done. The film takes place in the midst of the Olympics, beginning after Nadia has failed to reach the podium by herself but before a key competition in the relay, which she competes in with her best friend Marie-Pierre (Ariane Mainville) and two anglophone swimmers she has less in common with. As Nadia comes to terms with her decision (and the reaction of the people surrounding her, be it journalists or her coach, played by Pierre-Yves Cardinal) and the road that lies ahead, she also has to navigate the rest of the Olympics.
Nadia, Butterfly is pretty narratively pared down, almost completely uninteresting in wringing suspense from its swimming sequences. Plante indulges in some fairly facile metaphors (I mean, the title is one indication; the fact that our heroine spends most of her time in water traces the rest) but he steers vehemently away from spectacle. Nadia, Butterfly is a film about grieving the intangible — of feeling the loss of something that you willingly left behind and that isn’t even entirely gone yet. Part of Nadia’s loss comes from losing the familiar — the workouts, the camaraderie, the harsh diets and sacrifices — but the biggest part seems to be an apprehension of the unknown. As a top athlete since she was a child, Nadia hasn’t lived much, and she seems both terrified and eager to live some more. (At one point, she tells a physical therapist about how depressing it is that when she finally becomes a doctor, she’ll be in her 30s.)
Thus the crux of what happens in Nadia, Butterfly is the stuff that would feel normal, even banal to a regular 23-year-old: sexual encounters, drinking, spending time alone wandering in Tokyo and even the unreasonable consumption of junk food become brand new frontiers for her. Some (like swimmers, a generally underrepresented sport on the silver screen) may find Plante’s approach peculiar, but as a former competitive swimmer himself, it seems Plante has little use for the grind of the sport. What results is a surprisingly fascinating film imbued with complex, sometimes unclear and contradictory emotion.
One might argue that Savard, as a professional swimmer first and an actress second, doesn’t necessarily have the range that would permit the kind of dramatic heavy lifting that would beget a Rocky. And yet Savard acquits herself very well in the role, her (entirely assumed) discomfort benefitting the character’s obvious discomfort. It’s always a toss-up — one is unlikely to find someone who is both a trained actor and a professional athlete capable of replicating their chosen sport — but the gamble pays off here.
Prickly and hyperfocused, Nadia, Butterfly is not exactly what one would call a crowd pleaser. It engages with a lot of emotions that those of us who are dilettante athletes at best are not likely to ever actually feel for ourselves, and there are times when that can make Nadia, Butterfly seem like an insular experience. But the pleasures of Nadia, Butterfly are also in that exact same specificity, in the granularity of the experience and the alienating effect of toggling your entire life off willingly. There are no rousing speeches at the last minute here; there is no one last ounce of strength conjured up by an emotional muscle memory. There’s sports, and there’s everything after. It’s enough. ■
Nadia, Butterfly opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Sept. 18. Watch the trailer below:
For more film and TV coverage, please visit our Film & TV section.