An intense portrait of personal obsession — à la “Black Swan” — set at the time of 2013’s Maidan Uprising, “Olga” anticipates so much of the current situation in Ukraine. Elie Grappe’s prescient debut begins and ends in a country whose people united against corruption, successfully ousting Russian-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych, though the story takes place mostly in Switzerland (last year, the politically charged drama was that country’s submission to the Oscar international feature category). Even before Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion, “Olga” was an incredibly strong film, but now, the Kino Lorber release should be considered essential viewing for art-house audiences.
If all the bad news from that corner of the world bums you out, give the movie 10 minutes to prove itself. Without spoiling the shock, suffice to say that Olympics-bound gymnast Olga (played by Anastasia Budiashkina, a member of Ukraine’s national reserve team whom the authenticity-driven director convinced to act) is single-mindedly focused on her sport, practicing the difficult Jaeger move with her coach. But in the ride home with her similarly monomaniacal mother — a high-profile investigative journalist for a newspaper critical of Yanukovych’s administration — we learn in the most dramatic possible way just how extreme the problem in Ukraine is. What happens next forces Olga to flee the country.
Since her late father was from Switzerland, Olga has the unique chance to go there and continue training till things cool down. Except, history being what it is, things in Ukraine situation are about to heat up as never before, creating an incredibly difficult situation for Olga to navigate: a mix of patriotism, concern and plain old FOMO. What if all your friends and family staged a revolution and you weren’t invited? Olga has always prioritized her gymnastics, but now, while she’s supposed to be training for the European Championship with a new coach (Philippe Schuler) and frosty group of unfamiliar teammates, it’s tough not to spend every second distracted.
No teenage girl should have to split her attention between her passion and worrying about the safety of her mother (who’s being targeted by Yanukovych allies) and fate of her country. But this is essentially the same thing so many Ukrainians are going through again today.
Three years ago, shortly before the pandemic, I served on a jury at the Molodist Film Festival in Kyiv, where I made quite a few Ukrainian friends — ordinary folks whom it has been difficult to keep up with during this extended period of Russian aggression. Many escaped Kyiv, updating their followers via social media from Paris, London and Berlin, sharing posts that alternate between “normal” life and memes about the war in Ukraine. Approximately eight years after the events depicted in “Olga,” they are going through a version of the same essential challenge: How does one go on with life when your country is in flames?
That’s just one dimension of Olga’s story, however. There’s also the drama of adjusting to a new team, whose members speak a different language (Olga struggles with French and can’t understand when they switch to German) and have years of history. She’s an outsider who threatens the standing of each in the competitive hierarchy, and she stubbornly insists on practicing the Jaeger — a tricky reverse-grip release — despite the coach’s warnings that she’s not ready. If Olga’s not careful, she could hurt herself. But concentrating on this helps take her mind off the protests back home at Maidan Nezalezhnosti/Independence Square, seen via lo-res documentary montages and live streams from her friend Sasha (Sabrina Rubtsova, another athlete-turned-actor).
In casting real gymnasts, Grappe is able to embrace a handheld documentary style, observing Budiashkina and her co-stars performing physically demanding maneuvers few actors could fake their way through. On one hand, the ensemble delivers the appropriate body language and physique: compact young women with hunched shoulders and determined scowls. On the other, they’re not very expressive actors. So, while much of the tightly framed film is spent studying Budiashkina’s face, it’s an inscrutable Noh mask as to her true feelings.
For Grappe, that’s both the challenge and the goal of “Olga”: to break past her granite facade to reveal the complex and contradictory emotions roiling within. As in a Dardenne brothers film, our understanding of the character is based on studying her behavior — cold, semi-robotic routines, spliced together by violent jump cuts. At one point, Grappe even indulges a dream sequence, as Olga awakens in her Swiss host family’s home and imagines the bed surrounded by flames.
Unable to do anything to support her loved ones in Ukraine, Olga grows increasingly desperate. As in Lukas Dhont’s “Girl” (where the character’s decisions got the director in trouble), Olga resorts to an extreme form of self-harm in order to take control of a situation in which she feels powerless. It may not be plausible, but it certainly makes a dramatic point — one that plays out a bit too abruptly for audiences who’ve slowly come to care for this brusque, obsessive character. All her life, Olga has wanted nothing more than an Olympic medal. Her climactic choice is more than a sacrifice; it’s the most powerful statement she can make.