‘Olga’ Review: This Tiny Swiss Sports Drama Illuminates What Ukrainians Are Going Through

An intense portrait of personal obsession - à la "Black Swan" - "Olga" is set at the time of the 2013 Maidan uprising and thus anticipates much of the current situation in Ukraine. Elie Grappe's prescient debut begins and ends in a country whose people are uniting against corruption and successfully ousting pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, though the story takes place primarily in Switzerland (last year's politically charged drama was that country's submission at the international Oscars feature film category). Even before Vladimir Putin's unprovoked invasion, Olga was an incredibly strong film, but now the Kino Lorber release should be seen as a must-see for art-house audiences.
If all the bad news from this corner of the world upsets you, give the film 10 minutes to prove itself. Without spoiling the shock, suffice it to say that Olympic gymnast Olga (played by Anastasia Budiashkina, a member of the Ukraine National Reserve team whom the authenticity-minded director convinced to play) remains single-minded in her sport and practices the difficult Jaeger move with her coach. But on the drive home with her similarly monomaniac mother — a high-profile investigative journalist from a newspaper critical of Yanukovych's government — we learn in the most dramatic way just how extreme the problem is in Ukraine. What happens next forces Olga to leave the country.
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Since her late father was from Switzerland, Olga has a unique chance to go there and continue training until the situation cools down. Despite the fact that history is what it is, things are about to heat up in Ukraine like never before, creating an incredibly difficult situation for Olga to navigate: a mix of patriotism, apprehension and that plain old FOMO. What if all your friends and family were staging a revolution and you weren't invited? Olga has always prioritized her gymnastics, but now that she's set to train for the European Championships with a new coach (Philippe Schuler) and a chilly group of unknown teammates, it's difficult not to spend every second distracted.
No young girl should have to divide her attention between her passion and concern for her mother's safety (who is being targeted by Yanukovych allies) and the fate of her country. But that's basically the same thing that many Ukrainians are going through again today.
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Three years ago, just before the pandemic, I served as a jury member at the Molodist Film Festival in Kyiv, where I made some Ukrainian friends — ordinary people who were difficult to keep up with during this long period of Russian aggression. Many fled Kyiv, updating their followers on social media from Paris, London and Berlin, sharing posts that alternate between "normal" life and memes about the war in Ukraine. Roughly eight years after the events chronicled in "Olga," they face a version of the same basic challenge: how do you move forward when your country is on fire?
However, that is only one dimension of Olga's story. There's also the drama of adapting to a new team whose members speak a different language (Olga struggles with French and can't understand it when they switch to German) and have a history stretching back years. She's an underdog who threatens everyone's standing in the competitive hierarchy, and she's adamant about practicing the Jaeger – a tricky reverse-grip solve – despite warnings from the trainer that she's not ready yet. If Olga isn't careful, she could injure herself. But focusing on it helps her take her mind off the protests at home on Maidan Nezalezhnosti/Independence Square, which have been covered in lo-res documentary montages and live streams from her friend Sasha (Sabrina Rubtsova, another athlete-turned-actress ) you can see.
Casting real gymnasts, Grappe is able to embrace a handheld documentary style by watching Budiashkina and her co-stars perform physically demanding maneuvers that few actors could fake. On the one hand, the ensemble provides the right body language and figure: compact young women with hunched shoulders and a determined look. On the other hand, they are not very expressive actors. So while much of the severely framed film is spent studying Budiashkina's face, it's an unfathomable Noh mask as to her true feelings.
For Grappe, this is both the challenge and the goal of Olga: to break through its granite facade to reveal the complex and contradictory emotions that simmer within. As in a Dardenne brothers film, our understanding of the character is based on an examination of her behavior - cold, semi-robotic routines stitched together by violent jump cuts. Once Grappe even indulges in a dream sequence when Olga wakes up in the house of her Swiss host family and imagines that the bed is surrounded by flames.
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Unable to do anything to support her loved ones in Ukraine, Olga becomes increasingly desperate. As in Lukas Dhont's Girl (where the character's choices landed the director in trouble), Olga resorts to an extreme form of self-harm to gain control of a situation in which she feels powerless. It may not be plausible, but it certainly makes a dramatic point - one that plays a little too abruptly for audiences who are slowly becoming interested in this gruff, obsessive character. All her life Olga wanted nothing more than an Olympic medal. Your choice to climax is more than a sacrifice; it's the strongest statement she can make.
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Victor Yanukovych
Ukrainian politician and 4th President of Ukraine, ...

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