Even if “Nadia, Butterfly” weren’t set during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics — the film offering an impressively staged glimpse into an alternate timeline where the world’s biggest sporting event hasn’t been postponed due to a pandemic — Pascal Plante’s sensitive and tactile second feature (following 2018 debut “Fake Tattoos”) would still feel like the ultra-athletic sister that “Lost in Translation” never had.
This intimate, unhurried story of a swimmer at the first major crossroads (or pool turn) of her life may not share the wry comic touch or May/December undercurrent of Sofia Coppola’s Japan-set romance, but it paints a similarly woozy portrait of self-discovery around a young woman who finds herself on the other side of the world. There’s even a karaoke sequence in the middle, a bittersweet drive back to Narita Airport at the end, and a bunch of Beach House cues on the soundtrack (a band that basically emerged from the morning-after haze left behind by Coppola’s film). There may never have been a sports movie suffused with such a thick cloud of ennui.
From the very first shot, it’s clear that “Nadia, Butterfly” is serious about its swimming; that the people behind and in front of the camera alike have spent a serious portion of their lives in the pool. You can see it in the patient way that Plante watches bodies move through the water, opening the film with a take that lasts for nearly the entire duration of an Olympic final. You can see it in the bodies themselves, as lead actress Katerine Savard — a professional swimmer who won a Bronze in Rio — has the kind of surfboard-sized deltoids that aren’t possible to build during pre-production. And you can definitely see it in the matter-of-fact way that the race of a lifetime is over even faster than it began, with decades of training capped off by a security guard shooing the swimmers away from the pool so the next event can begin. Every time Nadia Beaudry climbs out of the water, it feels like she’s leaving a wake.
Seemingly the most famous member of Canada’s women’s Olympic swim team, Nadia has been very open about the fact that Tokyo is going to be her last dance; she’s “retiring” at the tender age of 21 (which is premature even for pro swimmers) in order to go back to school and get an anatomy degree. We don’t know what exactly has inspired Nadia to make this intractable decision, and we don’t know how susceptible she is to the peer pressure from her teammates and her coach to stick around for another cycle, though it’s safe to assume that people don’t reach the Olympics without a certain degree of self-conviction.
She’s kept at a slight remove from us in all but the film’s most intimate moments, as Plante carefully punctures little air holes into the reflective bubble that Nadia — like most of the athletes at her level — has built around her ambitions. It’s a bubble literalized by the Olympic experience, with its badges and private villages and hyper-controlled everything, and Plante’s team does a brilliant job of faking the games and the buzz that comes with them.
The opening passages of “Nadia, Butterfly” are so bracing and immediate that you might not even notice the extent to which they upend the expectations of a typical sports movie. The big relay race that caps off Nadia’s career happens less than 20 minutes into the first act, unfolding in real-time in a sequence that bridges the gap between two different phases of Nadia’s life (cinematographer Stéphanie Weber Biron shoots the event with the handheld 4:3 physicality of an Andrea Arnold film, and it doesn’t feel like an accident that all of Plante’s most palpable influences are women).
This languid character study has more than an hour left on the clock when the Canadian team first basks in the glory of their bronze medal finish. They’ve exceeded all expectations, and yet one glimpse of Nadia crying in the privacy of her aquablue changing tent — her teammates pressing the silhouettes of their hands up to the fabric in support — is all it takes to recognize that “Nadia, Butterfly” is less interested in winning than it is in loss. The obligatory kind of loss that someone has to survive before they’re able to make a new start; a painful but positive shedding of the skin; the grieving process that people are forced to push through if they’re brave enough to bury the only version of themselves they can recognize. A former swimmer himself, Plante knows how difficult it can be not to just stay in your lane.
The rest of the movie follows Nadia as she stumbles around Tokyo in search of a way forward, a process that begins with her taking MDMA, builds to a “Girlhood”-esque Avril Lavigne singalong, and generally finds its heroine treading water as she drifts between self-destruction and starting over. Savard’s knotted muscle of a lead performance (implosive but not unaffected) sustains an emotional tension that allows Plante to slow things down and share in Nadia’s frustrated inability to savor the moment.
It’s always hard to enjoy something when you know that it’s happening for the last time — doubly so when it doesn’t have to be the last time — and we often catch Nadia looking over shoulder, or recording the sound of her footsteps as she and her closest teammate clomp through Shibuya in high heels as if that’s the one thing their feet haven’t trained for (Marie-Pierre is played by Savard’s fellow swimmer and actual friend Ariane Mainville, whose natural sense of chaos never lets the movie feel dishonest).
But as Nadia finally loosens control over her body for the first time in her life, her mind isn’t able to catch up. Even the smallest hint of indulgence feels like a betrayal. Nadia cringes at the taste of tequila, calls herself a “slut” after one of those Olympic Village orgies you hear so much about every four years, and watches the replay of her medal-winning race like it’s an old home video she just dug up in the attic. Her trainer — a bearded Abercrombie type who Pierre Yves Cardinal embodies with enough intensity and sex appeal to infer a deep swell of submerged tension between these characters — suggests that swimming is like an ex who Nadia hates now but will come to miss one day soon. “Unless it’s an abusive relationship,” he allows. “Maybe I had an abusive relationship with swimming,” she replies.
That’s not for us to decide, and “Nadia, Butterfly” mercifully doesn’t hinge on any kind of traumatic revelation that recontextualizes the rest of its time in Japan. If anything, Nadia blames herself for embracing the “selfishness” of being a professional athlete. The film’s gauzy, soft-focus approach emphasizes Nadia’s personal need for self-growth, as she bristles at all of the things she’s denied herself for the sake of her career (e.g. she’s never had a boyfriend because going on the pill might have slowed her down in the pool).
That self-diagnosed selfishness can be hard to see under the surface of a story about someone who’s finally putting herself first, and it doesn’t help that Plante frustratingly writes around the palpable tension between the swimmers’ individual success and their value to each other as teammates. But if his film sometimes mistakes murkiness for ambiguity, it still resolves as a deeply felt (almost anthropological) look at a rare butterfly in search of the second chrysalis she needs to spread her wings and become herself all over again.
“Nadia, Butterfly” is part of the Cannes 2020 Official Selection. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.