As of July 2017, the International Swimming Federation renamed synchronized swimming to artistic swimming. That such an organization exists at all might be a shock, as most readers probably only know synchro, as the athletes often call it, as the pretty swim dancing section during the Olympics or from Esther Williams movies. The beautiful documentary Perfect seeks to illuminate all the grueling, exhaustive work that goes into creating a seamless looking routine.
Jérémie Battaglia’s writing and directing debut follows the Canadian synchro team as they train and push their bodies to the limit, with an eye on scoring big at the World Championships in Russia. If they do well enough there, the team will have a remarkable shot at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. A few of the people chronicled in the movie are coach Meng Chen, who was a synchronized swimmer in her native China and transitioned to coaching after retiring in 2003. In 2012, after four years on the National Canadian team’s coaching staff, she was named head coach. Marie-Lou Morin is the captain of the team and is as hard on herself as everyone else. Claudia Holzner has dreamed of being a synchronized swimmer since she was 6-years old. Now, she has a hard-earned spot on the team.
“…highlights the underrepresented and oft-misunderstood athleticism of synchronized swimmers…”
The hopefuls train by lifting weights, running, learning various gymnastic stunts, and doing pull-ups. Mind you, all of this is just for them to prepare for their actual sport. Yes, that crazy workout is simply a precursor for these amazing competitors. Despite the long hours and complicated rehearsal schedule, there is time for fun. After Chen believes them to have pulled off an excellent run, she sends them down the waterslide. Using Go Pros, or a similar camera, the audience is treated to a ride down with the ladies and the sheer elation and smiles on their faces is simply delightful. Of course, there are downsides to such an intense regimen. In a very well edited, almost playful sequence, the majority of the swimmers discuss the number of minor and major injuries sustained over the course of their synchronized swimming careers.
The first thing a viewer will notice is how breathtaking Perfect looks. Battaglia is also the director of photography, and he employs a variety of techniques to ensure the movie is as verdant as possible. When the team is learning the choreography, outside the pool before doing the moves in water, the camera is placed a fair distance away, so the massive scale of not just the team, but the complex itself, along with the intricate moves, are on full display. There are several moments of underwater filming as the young women practice and perform the piece. Seeing the meticulous movements in the uncanny, alien space beneath the surface is an awe-inspiring spectacle. The inverted angle when one of the athletes has her legs propped over the side of the pool, as she lies in it, is hypnotic and spellbinding – succinctly capturing the allure of the water to these people, in a rare moment of relaxation.
“Visually jaw-dropping cinematography accompanies the engaging personalities…”
The other thing the audience will notice is just how entrancing the movie becomes. Essentially an underdog story, of the type we have seen a hundred times before, but the hook works here. Maybe it is because the people we meet are so interesting, maybe it is because it’s real life, maybe it is because the movie is just that well made, maybe it is the exciting routine. More than likely, it is all of these things, coalescing, into an absorbing, feel-good documentary. Combine all that with Vincent Letellier’s rousing score, and cinematic gold is achieved.
Perfect highlights the underrepresented and oft-misunderstood athleticism of synchronized swimmers in the best way possible. Visually jaw-dropping cinematography accompanies the engaging personalities we meet on the way, as the audience cheers them on to potential victory.
Perfect (2018) Directed by Jérémie Battaglia. Written by Jérémie Battaglia. Starring Meng Chen, Claudia Holzner, Marie-Lou Morin, Karine Thomas, Jacqueline Simoneau.