The major prize-winners at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival have yet to be announced, but there is no question about which film is the most important. “Butterfly Vision” doesn’t just have the distinction of being one of the two Ukrainian productions on display (the other being Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s “Pamfir”), it also tells a story about the effects of warfare both on Ukraine’s soldiers and the citizens who have waited for them back home. It is almost incredible that Maksym Nakonechnyi was able to finish “Butterfly Vision” and to bring it to Cannes, where he made a touching speech about the risk of Ukrainian culture being extinguished. It is even stranger to see a film which is so horrifically timely.
Its heroine is Lilia (Rita Burkovska), a young drone pilot who is nicknamed Butterfly. In the opening scenes, she is handed over to the Ukrainian authorities, having been held captive for months by pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region. A fanfare and an adoring crowd greet her in Kyiv. The catchphrase we hear again and again is, “Glory to Ukraine. Glory to its heroes.” But in the car home from the airfield, Lilia’s mother is already chiding her for smoking. And when she tries to take the bus for free shortly afterwards, as is her right as a combat veteran, the driver grumbles that he already has two freeloaders on board, and he can’t afford to take another one. Being a hero isn’t quite so glorious, after all.
Then comes a series of health checks, and a matter-of-fact nurse tells Lilia that she is pregnant as a result of being raped in captivity; mercifully, the rape is glimpsed only in the briefest of flashbacks. An abortion could be medically and psychologically impossible, but how can Lilia adjust to civilian life with a reminder of her ordeal growing inside her? Nor is this the only post-war repercussion of the fighting in Donbas. When her demobbed husband, Tokha (Lyubomyr Valivots), isn’t walking his dog Tarantino, he spends his evenings on patrol with a militia group which is intent on cleaning up the streets. “I see,” says Lilia. “You’re boy scouts.” One of the group’s favourite activities is to march into the woods and to trash any Romani camp they can find. This isn’t the most straightforwardly patriotic film you might expect at this point in Ukraine’s history.
Nakonechnyi, the film’s director and co-writer, punctuates “Buttefly Vision” with visual flourishes, some of which are powerfully evocative of Lilia’s bruised state of mind, and some of which are dated gimmicks best left to low-budget horror movies. When Tokha is on patrol, we see his activities as shot on a webcam and streamed online, along with approving comments and emojis from subscribers. In other scenes, the diegetic sound is drowned out by the hum and buzz of a drone. All too often, an aerial shot will give us a drone’s-eye-view of Lilia’s location, and sometimes the picture will crumble into pixels and be replaced by a shot of Lilia in captivity, bloodied and chained. The most stomach-churning sequence is a fantasy interlude in which Lilia sees herself walking through a bomb-damaged square in Kyiv. It’s dizzying to think that this scene was achieved via imagination and visual effects when the film was being made. Now such a sequence could be in a documentary.
These sequences aside, “Butterfly Vision” is a sober, understated drama, with few dramatic highs and lows, and almost no colours that aren’t drab military greens and greys. The deadpan Lilia doesn’t show much emotion or say much about her pregnancy, nor does she lose her cool when other traumas come along. Her friends and the public at large don’t react as strongly as you might anticipate, either. As dignified and sincere as the film is, its momentous premise feels under-developed and its dilemmas under-explored, especially at the moment.
If Nakonechnyi’s low-key film had come out a year ago, it would have been received as a respectable, serious work from a promising first-time director. In the context of mid-2022, it is heart-rending, yet not quite intense enough.