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Nadia, played by Katerine Savard, is an Olympic swimmer in her twenties, faced with the challenges of her imminent retirement.Nemesis Films

  • Nadia, Butterfly
  • Written and directed by Pascal Plante
  • Starring Katerine Savard, Pierre-Yves Cardinal and Ariane Mainville
  • Classification 14A; 107 minutes


2.5 out of 4 stars

There is an unintentional element of alternate history at play in Nadia, Butterfly. Partially taking place at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, director Pascal Plante’s new drama was conceived with the expectation that such an event would take place – it’s not his fault the movie now plays like science fiction.

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A former competitive swimmer himself, Pascal Plante, right, brings an athlete’s eye to the tale of Nadia who decides to retire early for medical school.Nemesis Films

Mostly, though, Plante’s film is a grounded look at what happens when an athlete in their prime decides to walk away, and how anyone could possibly rebuild their identity after a lifetime of doing one specific thing very, very well. Plante would know: the Quebecois filmmaker is a former competitive swimmer who almost represented Canada at the 2008 Olympics. Naturally, he brings an athlete’s eye to the tale of Nadia (Katerine Savard), who after helping Canada bring home a bronze in the 4x100-metre medley relay, decides to set her sights on medical school, even though, as one television reporter tells her, she’s got “four more years left” to win some gold.

What follows is a low-key character study of a woman at a crossroads, with Nadia required to balance her own desires with the commitments she’s implicitly made to her teammates. The route that Plante takes to get Nadia from doubtful to hopeful is fairly standard – she cries, she attempts to drink her confusion away during one wild night of Tokyo partying, she has a heart-to-heart with her fellow Quebecois teammate – but because the filmmaker is doing so in a rather novel milieu, his drama is slightly elevated.

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As written by Plante, Nadia is a woman at constant war with her instincts, requiring a performer to find a way to wordlessly convey such tension on-screen.Nemesis Films

Also unusual is Plante’s decision to cast Savard, herself a Canadian swimmer who holds several national records in the freestyle and, ahem, butterfly swim events, and has competed at the Commonwealth Games. It makes sense that Plante would want another athlete to help him import the real-world elements of competition into his fiction, but while Savard has her moments – including a deep cry backstage after capturing the bronze – she is not strong enough to do the heavy emotional lifting that the film’s script requires. As written by Plante, Nadia is a woman at constant war with her instincts, requiring a performer to find a way to wordlessly convey such tension on-screen. Savard mostly offers faraway stares, frequently looking lost and in need of micro-managed direction.

Like Nadia’s go-strong-go-tough coach (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), though, I might be going to hard on Plante’s work. The film has already had a tough run of bad luck: initially selected for a Cannes premiere before that festival was cancelled, Nadia, Butterfly might have enjoyed a more receptive audience on the Croisette. Arriving in Canadian theatres this week without the anticipated Cannes buzz, the film is not quite a medallist. But it’s certainly a spirited contender.

Nadia, Butterfly opens in Toronto and select Quebec theatres Sept. 18

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