With “Nadia, Butterfly,” a Cannes-selected character study that follows a young swimmer in the immediate aftermath of her final race, Quebecois director Pascal Plante looked to explore the often-unseen side of the Olympic dream.

Building on his own experiences as a competitive swimmer as well as those of lead actress Katerine Savard – a real-life Olympian who competed in both London and Rio and who marks her acting debut with this film – Plante set his sophomore feature at the then-anticipated 2020 Tokyo games, even shooting large parts of the film in Japan.

While the games’ postponement until 2021 – coupled with ongoing uncertainty as to whether they will even take place at all – now lends that context a slightly counterfactual aspect, the narrative’s tight focus on an athlete’s inner life make the film feel evergreen.

“The film is a microscopic study of a woman at a certain point,” Plante explains. “I thought it interesting to stay in the whirlwind of the Olympics, following a character as she starts to see the first glimpses of the next stage of her life. She was almost a prisoner of her own talent, and she wants out. She wants to blossom in other areas.”

Though the twentysomething Nadia has opted to retire all on her own, the decision does not come easily. “I structured the screenplay around the stages of grief,” says Plante. “There’s a grieving process involved. She’s losing a whole network of colleagues and friends, a whole way of life.”

And so the intimate drama follows the lead as she comes to terms with her retirement, unfolding with an unhurried, observational approach reminiscent of the work of John Cassavetes and Richard Linklater. “I’ve always liked filmmakers who played with time,” Plante adds. “I like films with fewer, but longer scenes; scenes that have an arc within them as opposed to so many little building blocks in a larger mosaic.”

He continues: “I love the use of long takes, though I try not to be too flashy with them. I want the viewer to almost forget that it’s a single take, for cinema to take a backseat so that we can observe the character in an almost sociological way. By focusing on microscopic detail, the viewer is even more aware of the change than the characters themselves.”

With roughly 60% of the dialogue in French and 40% in English, the film also offers an uncommon proposition for Quebecois cinema. “Quebecois cinema is very distinct from Anglo Canadian cinema, and there are not that many films that try to build a bridge between the two,” the filmmaker explains.

“I wanted to have a bilingual film,” he continues. “As a francophone who travels to festivals and represents my own films in a second language, I wanted a protagonist who had a similar experience. When you’re at the Olympics, of course you wear Canada from head to toe; you’re an emissary for Canada, which can be extremely conflictual with some Quebecois’ identities. The film explores [that tension.]”

“Nadia, Butterfly” is produced by Nemesis Films, with Wazabi Films handling international sales.