Director: Pascal Plante
Stars: Katerina Savard, Ariane Mainville, Eli Jean Tahchi
At the time of writing, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are, belatedly, in full swing, but its a games unlike any other. It’s a year late and the bleachers are empty, the audience is missing. Economically, it’s a disaster for Japan, as the additional revenue from the tourism brought by the games would have been significant. Of course, public health is and should be the primary concern. In spite of this, the athletes are showing their mettle, the displays of stamina and agility are as impressive as ever. But this sense of emptiness also lends the games a sadness; a bittersweet edge that – hopefully – we’ll never quite see again.
Pascal Plante’s Nadia, Butterfly quite accidentally affords us a window into an alternate reality, one in which the COVID-19 pandemic never manifested, in which the 2020 games went ahead on time and as planned. The arenas are filled with spectators cheering on their respective teams. The atmosphere is heady instead of strangely sober.
I hadn’t intended to review Nadia, Butterfly. I came to it slightly late (near the end of it’s 30 day run on MUBI in the UK) and I usually keep an eye on accessibility for the films featured on here. But the film quietly captivated me. Plante – along with his cast and crew – took me into this world and showed me a variation on the Olympics. Not just this games for the reasons above, but into the cavernous background world of training pools, pep talks, the Village and beyond.
Real-world competitive swimmer Katerina Savard stars as Nadia, member of the Canadian women’s swim team who, at 23, has decided to make Tokyo her last event. Dissatisfied with how demanding it is of her time and energy, she has decided to enroll in medical school even as she sagely recognises that it means she’ll be 30 before she can practice medicine.
Her team are outwardly supportive of her decision, especially when the cameras are on them, but there’s a tension within the crew because of Nadia’s choice. It prickles in the air, especially when a post-win drinking session loosens Nadia’s lips on the topic and she clumsily declares all athletes “selfish”.
An athlete first and foremost, Savard is superb in the lead role and a natural in front of the camera. Though it may prove dissatisfying for some, Savard helps Plante to take the less-obvious route here, as Nadia remains closed off and inscrutable throughout. Her guard is always up, creating a barrier between character and audience. Do we ever really feel as though we know her? Significantly this comes across not as a failure in the film to provide us with a satisfactory entry point into the character, but instead as a well-observed study of the kinds of people we all know who keep themselves at a remove from others. It’s a portrait of a reserved person. Nadia doesn’t owe explanations and that goes for her teammates and us in the audience.
The film charts the team’s climactic relay race and the celebrations afterward. In terms of capturing the action in the pool, Pascal’s crew are exceptional. Long dollies keep pace with the swimmers; cinematographer Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron zeroing in on the actors/athletes, immersing us in the immediacy of their attempts and the 30 second lengths of the Olympic pool. It’s as riveting as any example of sportsmanship committed to film.
This exemplary work means that the first half hour of the film – the most keenly sporting – stands as a dramatic high that Nadia, Butterfly never really tries to recreate. The remainder of the film can be seen as a long cooling off period, as we’re invited to know these athletes in other environs. Train hard, play hard; Nadia and her closest colleague Marie-Pierre (the also-excellent Ariane Mainville) venture out into the Tokyo night, go clubbing, find themselves hooking up with other athletes at a horny, multicultural afterparty that has the hedonistic looseness of a blissed-out sex party. Then, too, the hangovers, the reality settling back in.
So the film tenses and relaxes, tenses and relaxes. It’s particularly interesting to see how the team’s demeanor differs when the cameras are on them. Interviews with the press are all performance as Nadia and co. present a spirited sing-song version of themselves, primed with soundbites, as though they were placating children. These interactions remind us that even the versions that are presented to us on TV as fact are calibrated, censored and sanitised. Thus the remainder of the picture comes to feel intimate and revealing.
Nadia, Butterfly presents a window into a world where a career is a finite thing. The team’s eldest member, Karen (Hilary Caldwell), is in her early 30s, but she is already realistic about winding down, focusing on shorter events. She, too, has an exit plan in mind. Athletes burn bright and burn fast. Perhaps this is something Nadia is averse to, seeing a different future for herself; one stretched-out, continuous, yet still ambitious. This may extend to her romantic aspirations also. Having never been in love and – as itemised here – more assured in fleeting sexual encounters, perhaps Nadia sees personal change tied to professional?
With it’s slightly boxy 1.50:1 aspect ratio (which I’m an absolute sucker for), Nadia, Butterfly immersed me in an environment I’m rarely afforded. It proved compelling enough for this reason alone, but Pascal’s humanistic eye and with Savard’s cagily giving performance, I found a lot more to linger on here. More than enough to commit these words down. It’s a shame that world cinema pictures like this one have such limited and contrarian releases in the UK. A physical release of something like this is, sadly, very unlikely. Keep an eye out. Catch it if you can.