Directed by former competitive swimmer Pascal Plante and featuring a two-time Olympic athlete in the title role, “Nadia, Butterfly” qualifies as both a sports movie and not-a-sports movie — which is to say, Plante’s aloof, intermittently engaging second feature takes a backstage look at a defining moment in a swimmer’s career, but it does so in a way that violates nearly all the rules of the game.
For starters, the film opens with the final race of Canadian swimmer Nadia Beaudry (Katerine Savard), at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, rather than building up to the big event and hitching drama on the question of whether she wins or loses. The genre has trained audiences to watch sports movies the way they do the events themselves, driven by the suspense of the outcome. Here, we know relatively early on that Nadia will go home with a medal, but not the best one, and not for the event that would be most meaningful.
Rather, writer-director Plante (following up his 2018 debut, “Fake Tattoos”) focuses on Nadia’s retirement, at the relatively young age of 23, from the demanding field to which she’s thus far dedicated her life. Some might see this as a kind of defeat. Certainly her coach (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), her teammates (most notably Ariane Mainville as Marie-Pierre) and the Canadian media are all disappointed to see her giving up before getting the gold, surrendering while she still has at least one more four-year cycle in her.
Nadia says she wants to be a doctor, and that’s a goal that takes years of training to achieve — not unlike earning an Olympic medal. She irks her friends by insisting that swimming is an inherently selfish sport (this mere hours after they place as a team in the 4×100-meter medley relay), explaining that she would prefer to dedicate her life to helping others. That’s an admirable ideal, and could be dramatic in its own right if Plante were interested in the outcome. But “Nadia, Butterfly” cares more — as its too-cute title implies — about the abstract idea of transformation than the actual work it takes.
Surely a fascinating movie could be made about an Olympic medalist going to med school, observing how her peers handle her celebrity and what it’s like developing a social (or romantic) life after the tunnel vision of training all those years. Plenty of people change lanes in life, and it’s fun to imagine what it must be like going to grad school with James Franco, or what a first lady such as Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama does after her husband’s term is over. As an ex-swimmer himself, Plante seems more interested in the turning point: the day when Nadia stops being the thing she’s always identified with, and starts reorienting her mind for what comes next.
The director and his DP, Stéphanie Weber Biron, present their portrait via a boxy 1.5:1 aspect ratio, a narrower format than most movies use and one that serves to block out most of the spectacle we’d expect from such an exciting milieu — apart from a pair of impressive tracking shots that run the length of an Olympic pool as Savard practices the eponymous stroke. Elsewhere, the film’s shallow-focus, tight-framing strategy redirects our attention on Nadia and what she’s thinking. But Savard isn’t an actor, and though she brings a physical realism to the role — the kangaroo shoulders of a professional swimmer, the nervous agitation as she waits behind the starting block for her turn at the relay — her face is a blank. The film’s most effective scene involves her crying to herself in the changing tent while her teammates caress the blue material in solidarity from outside.
If you can imagine what she’s going through, the film could be quite insightful. But for those who have trouble projecting their experience onto a wide-eyed and mostly wordless face, expect frustration with in a movie whose plot is too subtle to grasp, and whose symbolism is too obvious to excuse (namely, visions of Nadia plunging into dark, unfamiliar water on her own). “Nadia, Butterfly” could have made this accomplished woman more relatable even without relying on genre clichés. Instead, Plante treats it like a slow-motion study of a suicide — metaphorically speaking. Nadia has her entire life ahead of her, but the movie makes it feel like it’s ending.
After the race, Nadia goes out dancing with Marie-Pierre (whose energy seems better suited to the screen than Savard’s). They meet up with a group of Italian rowers. Nadia flirts with a Lebanese fencer (Eli Jean Tahchi). More drinking, some drugs and a one-night stand ensue. The next morning she has regrets, spending a fair amount of time being sick, sullen and introspective. She’s processing a lot, but are we?
The film offers faint clues about how we’re meant to read these scenes. Maybe they’ll resonate more among swimmers or other high-performance athletes, who can appreciate the significance of, say, the ice bath Nadia takes the night before the big race. Plante seems to be exploring how Nadia reacts to freedom after every iota of her attention and energy until now was dedicated to her sport: no fun, no sex, no life. But her teammates show that one can be disciplined without being dull. It’s not Nadia’s fault — or Savard’s — that she’s a bore. That’s just the way this oddly incurious movie, which assumes too much of its audience, has made her out to be. In the water, Nadia may be a powerful butterfly, but on land, she’s more of a moth.