The Novice: Lauren Hadaway’s aquatic catabase

Sports autobiography? Tragic love story? Psychological thriller? Horror movie ? We can’t really choose. The Novice is all of these. Lauren Hadaway’s first feature film, highly awarded at the Canadian Tribeca Film Festival in 2021, will be released in theaters this Wednesday.

In the beginning, God did not create heaven or earth. In the beginning, God created water. A black lake without wave and without life.

The first and last image of The Novice constitutes an aerial plan. There is water. There is only water. All over. In contrast, a long piece of purple-coloured wood emerges. It stands out against the dark, almost plastic-like aquatic surroundings. This long piece of wood is the chainsaw of the horror film, it is the obsession of the psychological thriller, it is the emerged door of the Black Styx which leads to the Underworld. Someone is lying there, holding oars on both sides of the oar, horizontally. This is Alex Dall. She wears her avironesque cross. The almost Christlike image announces the tragic itinerary of the young girl gradually consumed by an absurd ambition.

God says, “Let there be light! “. And the light was not.

“Legs, body, arms”

Who is Alex Dall? To be honest, we don’t really know. If it were literature, one would blame the external point of view that creeps in at the start of the film. The viewer never fully enters the mind of this solitary young girl, who bites her nails until they bleed and retakes her university exams. three times to check the answers. When she decides to join the rowing club at her university, when she arrives in a dismal underground for the practice session, the coach asks her the question: “Why do you want to row? “. His question will remain unanswered.

And yet, we want to get inside her head, to understand why she so quickly develops such an obsession for a sport that she chooses by chance, and for which she has no aptitude. The close-ups, almost suffocating, of this tense and nervous face, frustrate the viewer who wants to understand, but who can’t. If we don’t understand it, we only see it. It’s like she’s suffocating the screen.

It all starts in this humid underground where, every morning, the novices meet to train. “Legs, body, arms”. These are the movements to remember to hope one day to get on an oar and row in competition. During the first ten minutes of the film, Alex Dall, camped by the tumultuous and frenetic Isabelle Fuhrman, does not utter a word. Not a word, except “Legs, body, arms”, which she repeats constantly, to such an extent that they become embedded in the brain and we can no longer get rid of them.

“The Novice is my catharsis”

The story of Alex Dall is the story of Lauren Hadaway, the director. When she was 17, she decided to join her university’s novice rowing team. The story of this young girl who tries to be the best but never succeeds is the story of Lauren Hadaway who was always the penultimate bench swimmer on each team.

A character study that the director elaborates to purge herself of this visceral need for challenge which pushed her to develop Excel spreadsheets to follow her progress, which convinced her to pierce her hands Christically by dint of rowing. “This film is my attempt to explore a part of myself that I don’t fully control,” confides the director. The elusiveness of Alex Dall projected onto the screen is nothing but a reflection of Lauren Hadaway’s laborious and magnificent attempt to capture herself.

“Everyone thought you were psychotic,” one of her rowing buddies once confessed to her. And we can’t blame them. This film describes the ambition of an athletic progression and the harsh reality of a real catabase. The scenario is built around a progressive immersion in the psychiatric madness and the nightmarish onirism of Alex Dall. The rowing scenes become increasingly surreal. The 1960s love songs that run through the practice scenes twist and twist as the movie gets carried away. Because indeed, the film gets carried away. He tightens around the neck of the young student whose pulse is gradually accelerating.

The Novice, it is also the story of a physical transformation. The director studies the destructive effects of competitive sport on the body. The close-ups give a special place to the organic, on the borderline between the athletic, the sexual and the destructive. Messy hair. Lungs on fire. A sweaty back. Bloody hands. Cut ribs. Torn veins. Alex Dall transforms. His body is emaciated. His face is hollow. His hands swell. The actress herself operates this metamorphosis, to such an extent that at certain times, one would believe to see an animal. When Dall addresses her opponent, Brill, who has just earned her place in competitive rowing, she grins almost bestial. A kind of instinctive reflex when approaching the predator.


“The coaches never complimented my athletic abilities; they complimented my courage”. Alex Dall has no talent. She knows it. She may surpass herself, but she can’t surpass others. She may train during the school holidays, while her competing rowers do not, she will not get her place in competition. His relationship to failure shapes his relationship to the individuals around him who appear either as secondary or as adversaries to be beaten at all costs.

Most sports thrillers, like black swan draw characters consumed by their talent. But here, it is not a question of talent. It is about courage. In Black Swan, the White Swan is devoured by the Black Swan in the name of creative madness and destructive genius. But in The Novice, Alex Dall is devoured by perseverance, by the only weapon at her disposal: guts. This aquatic thriller manages to defy the expectations of the classic psychological drama.

It’s like the debate a priori superficial led by Alex and his girlfriend while they play billiards. The two young students do not agree on the motivations that pushed the Americans to go to the Moon. The girlfriend advances the argument of scientific progress, Alex advances that of competition with the Soviets. We always come back to it. For Alex, an action only has value if it refers to a prior classification between Men. There is no worthwhile intellectual or physical satisfaction, only the perverse and yet so human enjoyment of crushing others.

A tragic love story

The Novice, in its dreamlike interstices and obsessive bifurcations, is none other than a doomed love story between a young girl and a sport. Each hyperstylized rowing scene captures a different stage of this tragic relationship: the first spark, the awkward attraction at the start, the first time we have sex, and the slow descent into a toxic and abusive relationship.

This is a definite endless attraction. Even when the love story ends, Alex gets caught up in love at first sight. She wants to continue. It’s raining. The thunder will descend. But she continues. She has to reach the finish line. No matter what.

” Let there be light ! “. And the light was not.

Visual: © Press kit

The Novice: Lauren Hadaway’s aquatic catabase – Toutlaculture