Nadia. Butterfly

Nadia, Butterfly Review: Life in a Fishbowl

The 2020 Olympic Games in Japan endure thanks to Nadia, Butterfly. In one of the more peculiar strokes of COVID-19 effecting movies, this film rooted in realism becomes weirdly speculative. The only iteration of the Japan Games may be in this second dramatic feature from Pascal Plante (Fake Tattoos). If COVID keeps the Games from happening, then fine. Our girls go home with some medals and deliver a thrilling performance in the swimming relay. The swimmers win a bronze, but gold seems inevitable for Nadia, Butterfly as it spreads its wings.

Nadia, Butterfly, which was the only Canadian feature selected for Cannes this year, proves Plante a director to watch. The director deftly probes the experiences of young Canadians and shows a remarkable hand with directors. The film features a breakthrough performance from former Olympic swimmer Katerine Savard in the title role. Nadia, Butterfly features an intriguing case of art-imitating life as Nadia wonders about life outside the pool.

The swimmer announces her retirement from the outset of the film. Even though she’s only 23, Nadia feels ready to hang up her goggles. This decision puts the pressure on her final performance—the team relay in which she swims the butterfly stroke. Nadia excels in the pool, hurtling past her competitors and elevating her team’s performance. As she catches her breath in the pool and watches her teammate complete the relay, her face is a whirlpool of mixed emotions. Equally relieved and disappointed, Nadia knows that she could have ended on a higher note.


Girls Get (Too) Wild

The bittersweet finale leaves the athlete notably agitated. Having voiced her decision, she seems stuck with retirement, yet forced to regurgitate happy-dappy soundbites. The film asks what life there is for an athlete after the games end. Nadia, like many other athletes, has spent the better part of her teens and adult life preparing for the games. But the sacrifices made for her training—adolescent drunkenness, casual dating, and a social life—hit her in the face. She realizes the challenges of starting anew at 23. Her coach, Sébastian (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), can’t hide that he thinks she’s making a mistake.


Especially bothered by Nadia’s behaviour, but less so her retirement, is her long-time teammate Marie-Pierre (Ariane Mainville). Remove swimming and the girls have nothing in common. A girls’ night out sets her straight, but Nadia lets loose and risks alienating herself from the team. Unfortunately, the night delivers a racist joke that runs throughout Nadia, Butterfly and won’t play well as the film expands. The joke lands with a thud and it seems unnecessary even if the casual racism of the swimmer’s one-night stand reflects her need to see herself within a larger school of fish.


Spreading Her Wings

Over the course of a single evening and hungover morning, Nadia loses herself and finds grounding. Savard anchors nearly every frame of the film with a natural and introspective performance. The blank slate of Nadia’s face evokes the future she must confront. The sense of loss and feeling of directionlessness swirls on the young woman’s physique. In boldly exploring these aspects of Nadia’s psychology, Savard gives a performance of striking bravery. It’s rare for seasoned actors to be so vulnerable, yet Savard grabs hold of the parallels she shares with Nadia. Life after sports is indeed possible, as Savard shows with her promising reinvention.

Plante makes a risky endeavour by trusting an untrained actor with carrying a performance-driven film. The risk increases when the role calls for the star to be quietly introspective. The gamble pays off, however, and the raw naturalism of Savard’s performance rewards. Nadia, Butterfly has a unique lived-in sensation that films about young people rarely do.


“Athletes are selfish”

Similarly,  Plante makes ambitious headway as he expands his canvas. Shooting in an unconventional aspect ratio of 1.5:1, Plante and cinematographer Stéphanie Weber Biron shrink Nadia’s world. Tightly boxed in, the visuals emphasise the subtleties of Savard’s internalised performance. The muted nature of her performance contrasts sharply with the film’s richly layered sound design. Nadia, Butterfly reverberates with anxiety its heroine experiences. It conveys the rush Nadia feels in pool as the sound pulses with every stroke through the water.


Although the film’s tightly constructed and psychologically isolated nature might alienate some viewers, that’s life in a fishbowl.  Nadia frequently reminds her teammates that athletes are selfish. Spending so much time in the gym, and in one’s own head, offers personal growth in limited ways. Having retired from this isolated life, Nadia learns that she can no longer enjoy the pleasure of isolation. Being underwater inevitably demands a swimmer to come up for air. As Nadia gradually gets hold of herself and lets go of her anxieties, the film builds to a cathartic exhale. Nadia might flap like a butterfly, but she stings like a bee.

Nadia, Butterfly opens in theatres Sept. 18.