Nadia, Butterfly is an important and an intriguing film. I hope it manages to find audiences who will appreciate what it is trying to do. The comma in the title carries a lot of weight. ‘Nadia’ is identified by her style of swimming and that’s the central interest of the narrative. Are there metaphorical readings as well? Nadia (Katerine Savard) is an Olympic swimmer and a member of the Canadian 4 x 100 metres women’s medley team for which she swims the butterfly leg. To reach the level of an Olympic athlete requires huge commitment, both physically and emotionally. To identify yourself with a sporting event from a young age means sacrificing many of the pleasures (and the heartaches) of adolescence. In many cases, young sports stars peak early and face retirement in their twenties. It must be difficult for them to think through what that means. The sports film tends to focus on the rise to fame of a star performer or, occasionally, the drama of the final days of a veteran. Nadia is about to swim her last race at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, at which point she will retire at barely 24 and head back to ‘school’ in order to eventually become a doctor.
Canada is a rich country with the resources to become a major sporting power yet apart from ice hockey it rarely produces global sporting stars and even then winter sports are not truly global. The pressure on those athletes who do show potential is enormous and swimming is one of the few sports in which Canadians can compete directly with the US and Australia in particular. Because Tokyo 2020 was postponed, Nadia, Butterfly has the feel of a science fiction film. Shot in 2019 in Montreal and Tokyo, director Pascal Plante set out to make a film which attempts to put a ‘real’ swimmer’s experience of a major sporting event on screen. Most sports films fail in this regard even if some present exciting narratives. Actors don’t have the physical attributes and skills which must therefore be depicted on screen through the machinery of cinema by production personnel who themselves don’t necessarily know the sport intimately. Nadia, Butterfly is different because director Plante was a swimmer who reached the Canadian Olympic trials for Beijing 2008 and Katerine Savard won an Olympic swimming medal at Rio 2016.
The first section of the film focuses on the race itself and Pascal Plante uses the race and the training before it to present what is now termed an ‘immersive’ experience of a top level swimming event with underwater cameras complementing the main cinematography of Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron, editing by Amélie Labrèche and a specialised sound design. Pascal Plante himself has long experience working in the sound department on productions. The film is presented in the unusual 1.50:1 ratio. It seems to work and I think I assumed it was 1.66:1. Once the race is over, however the narrative shifts away from the spectacle to focus on Nadia and how she attempts to deal with her retirement which will mean the end of her rigorous training regime but also the end of her comradeship with the swimming team, including her coaches and support staff and especially her close friendship with Marie-Pierre (Ariane Mainville) with whom she has been swimming since childhood. An early indication of the problems her retirement brings on comes soon after the race when the swimmers are winding down and Nadia reacts badly to the revelation that she has been chosen as one of the ‘hottest’ athletes in the Olympic Village in an online survey. She lashes out and says some things that her team members find quite shocking. Later we discover that she has been mainly celibate during her career and has not used the birth control pill because it may have had physical side effects that would undermine her training. She says athletes are selfish – they must be to succeed. In these exchanges it is also clear that the medley team is not as tightly-knit as we might expect. There is a language split with Nadia and Marie-Pierre on one side and Karen and Jessica on the other. Karen at least speaks French but not Jessica. I should point out that this is a Québécois film, with most dialogue in French. Jessica is also only 17 and significantly younger than the other three.
Marie-Pierre is able to cajole Nadia into drinking and clubbing and this then becomes a different kind of ‘release’, but it doesn’t necessarily make Nadia feel better and she will pay with a severe hangover next morning when a TV interview is required from the medley team. Much of the third section of the film is concerned with Nadia’s sense of trying to understand what else the world has to offer outside high level competitive swimming. This seems to me an honest film about genuine issues in high level sports. Swimming, to me as a distant observer, feels like both a team sport and an individual sport, much like ‘track and field’ athletics. There is a sense of a team competing in the games and the relays represent team events, but they are still events that see four separate swims aggregated. Nadia has a point when she argues that swimmers have to be selfish. Their individual times are what count towards selection. After Tokyo Nadia aims to retire. For her team-mates there is a desire for her to stay, partly one suspects so that they feel more comfortable and don’t have to face the moment of leaving themselves just yet.
The other feature of the élite sports ‘bubble’ is the sense of being cocooned by the team organisation. Nadia explains she has never booked a hotel room or bought a plane ticket herself yet she has swum in many parts of the world. When she breaks away on her own she moves around Tokyo, though she never interacts with any Japanese. This sequence is presented with an electro-synth soundtrack and features the shopping and entertainment centre of Tokyo in an almost futuristic way. I’ve seen references by some reviewers to Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (US 2003) and there’s something in that but I also thought of Chris Marker’s Sans soleil (France 1983), especially with the focus on the Tokyo 2012 Games mascot. Plante had to commission separate designs of the Canadian team swimsuits and other costumes and I assume that included the mascot. The new designs all look good and in the case of the mascot, better than the original? There is no conventional resolution of the film which may irritate some viewers but the inference is clear. Nadia will take time to process her experiences of swimming competitively and going to the Olympics and it will inform in some way how she tackles training as a doctor.
Nadia, Butterfly was scheduled to screen at Cannes in 2020, but as with Tokyo 2020 that event didn’t happen. The film was still reviewed and received praise from several international reviewers. It was released in Canada in September 2020 and has been available online in the US and Spain. I think it has also had a release in France? It is currently streaming on MUBI in the UK. Not all the responses to the film have been positive but most negative comments seem to come from those who were expecting a conventional sports film. I think that the film works very well indeed and that Katerine Savard as a non-professional actor but a very professional swimmer offers a real insight into professional swimming and the Olympics, as does her friend Ariane Mainville, another swimmer. It was only after the screening that I realised that I had seen Pascal Plante’s first feature Fake Tattoos (Canada 2017) which I also enjoyed a great deal. I won’t forget the name next time.