Unlike many sports movies, “Nadia, Butterfly” is not about wins, losses or a comeback story. The usual cliches that often plague the genre aren’t found in the Cannes-selected film from Pascal Plante.
Instead the Canadian director explored the title character’s internal battle with redefining her existence after a virtual lifetime of pursuing elite athleticism.
“It’s a sports movie that is very mournful,” Plante said of the film, now showing in select cities and set for theatrical release across Canada in mid-October. “It’s like the retirement is almost treated like death in a way.”
The role of Nadia is played by Olympic swimmer Katerine Savard, who makes her acting debut. Shot last year in Montreal and Tokyo, the film essentially creates an alternative Summer Games and examines Nadia’s last race and the days that follow.
Savard had the swimming chops down — she won relay bronze for Canada at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Much like the reality for many Olympians who grapple with transition from sport, an emotional tug seemed to serve as a weight around Nadia’s neck that was at times heavier than any medal.
Savard, a University of Montreal grad, won butterfly gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. She took a five-month break from swimming in 2018 and came back feeling recharged physically and mentally.
The subject matter was somewhat familiar to her and it came through in her acting performance.
“I’ve experienced so many emotions in my swimming career, (I) just had to think about all those experiences and all those emotions that (I’ve) been through already,” she said in a recent interview. “It was kind of easy to replicate in the movie.”
Plante does a masterful job of letting things breathe. One can almost hear the thoughts racing through Nadia’s mind during extended shots of her swimming lengths in the pool.
After coming up short in an individual race, the joy of reaching the relay podium does little to help with the character’s internal conflict. She breaks down at one point in a pool changing area and despite the glow from a medal-winning performance, later challenges her peers with blunt talk that is jarring but authentic.
“Sometimes Nadia is not always the virtuous hero,” Plante said. “Sometimes she’s a bit conflicted. Sometimes she doesn’t want to smile and sometimes she’s a bit bitchy. But I wanted to embrace all of those things because that’s what makes her human at the end of the day.”
The Olympic pool in Montreal was used to shoot racing scenes and computer-generated effects were added to make it look like a packed facility at the Tokyo Games.
“Nadia, Butterfly” was one of 56 films selected for the Cannes international film festival in France. It was billed as the lone Canadian film to make the cut from 2,067 overall submissions.
The Cannes festival was set for May but had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The lineup was revealed last spring to give the films a badge of honour.
“Nadia, Butterfly” had a limited theatrical release this month in select Canadian cities and is available to stream at the Calgary and Vancouver International Film Festivals through early October. It’s also set for VOD release on Dec. 22.
Plante, a former elite swimmer himself, reached the Olympic Trials in 2008 but didn’t qualify for the Beijing Games that year. He consulted with Olympians to get first-hand knowledge for the project and eventually reached out to Savard.
“It sounds almost too good to be true that the best butterfly swimmer in Quebec turned out to be what we considered the best actress to do the role,” Plante said. “But that’s literally how it turned out.”
Savard, a 27-year-old native of Pont-Rouge, Que., still swims at an elite level and is hoping to qualify for the real Tokyo Games, now re-scheduled for 2021. Swimmers Ariane Mainville and Hilary Caldwell also star in the 106-minute film, along with Pierre-Yves Cardinal.
It’s the second feature film for Plante, a Concordia University grad who directed “Fake Tattoos” in 2017. The finishing touches on “Nadia, Butterfly” were made last February.
“I’m kind of happy that this film is kind of an odd experience in a way,” Plante said. “Like it’s an odd rhythm and an odd structure. It’s like it’s real, but it’s not. It’s metaphorical.
“There’s magic and yet I think it’s sociologically viable. I’m just proud we created a kind of weird film.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 29, 2020.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press