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Descent into Darkness

A poster of No Limit, a Netflix movie

No Limit is a Netflix movie supposedly based on the life of diver Audrey Mestre who died while trying to break a world record in free-diving. Her death is alleged to have been caused by her controlling and jealous partner cum coach Francisco Ferreras.

In the movie Audrey is portrayed as Roxana Aubrey, a French woman who was brought up by her grandfather, a spearfishing champion. Her father passed away when she was very young and her mother and grandfather are the primary influences in her life. Roxana learned to swim and dive at an early age and is studying to understand the ocean world better. 

While at University in Paris, Roxana comes across a poster advertising a free-diving course led by world champion Pascal Gautier. She decides impulsively to quit her studies, move to the South of France and enrol in the course. Pascal, a ladies man, starts to give her a lot of attention. On the first evening, the team meets at a restaurant and Pascal, the centre of attention, is regaling everyone with sexist jokes. When Roxana joins them for dinner, she catches his attention. He follows her into the restroom and has sex with her despite his girlfriend being present at the dinner. Roxana is smitten with him and, within a few days of meeting him, is head over heels in love. 

Free-diving is a sport where one holds one’s breath whilst diving until resurfacing. There is no breathing apparatus or scuba gear involved. ‘No Limit’ is a form of free-diving where one uses a sled or a weight to reach a particular depth and then a buoyancy-control device to pull one back up to the surface. There are many risks for divers especially due to decompression sickness, barotrauma and nitrogen narcosis. However, there are safety measures in place such as assistance teams stationed at various depths, thorough equipment checks, and a first-aid team. Free-divers claim that it is a fairly safe sport compared to car racing or downhill skiing. Nevertheless, quite a few people do die during dives and there does not seem to be an external agency that audits safety measures.

Soon after their first meeting, Pascal invites Roxana to a dive where he is practising to break the world record. During the dive, one of his safety team divers dies because he was not very experienced. It shakes up the team who believe that they need better safety measures but Pascal is insistent that he knows what he is doing and is satisfied with the standards for his next dive. He invites Roxana to join the team and be a surface safety diver. The team objects but she accepts, and Pascal insists that since she is trained in first aid she is a valuable addition.

Over time, Pascal starts training Roxana to free-dive and encourages her to take risks. He urges her to dive deeper, saying she is ready for it. Because she is in love with him, she trusts him and does his bidding. As she starts to shine and break records, she begins to receive media attention. She is also good looking and is often referred to by the media as a sex symbol and as a ‘feminist’ just because she is a successful woman.  

Pascal, on the other hand, is ageing and starts to suffer from blackouts which makes his dives risky and dangerous. As others attempt to break his record of 176 metres (he holds the most number of world records) he gets agitated and impatient to attempt another dive. But with every dive, he puts himself at risk. Finally, an American woman breaks his record and dives to 178 metres. It upsets him immensely that a woman has broken his record and he believes it is because she did not follow the rules, which was not true.

At the same event, Roxana wins the first medal for French Women in the diving with fins category. During the media interview when she is asked if she is part of this new wave of women breaking records, she responds saying that the record is based on ability, the best person won, and it had nothing to do with being a sex symbol. This is reminiscent of other sports where women are extremely capable and talented, yet they are often given undue attention for their looks rather than their ability and even paid less than their male counterparts. It is worth recalling that in the 1973 Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs, the then men’s number one ranked tennis player, in straight sets.

Pascal becomes extremely jealous of Roxana’s success and the attention she is receiving. He starts to cheat on her and is aggressive during sex, almost choking her at one point. Despite the red flags, she continues to stay with him but realises she made a mistake in choosing him over Tom, the first person on the team who she had met and had been attracted towards. Meanwhile, Pascal begins cheating on her. During this turbulent time in her relationship, she turns to Tom for friendship and solace. This infuriates Pascal even further. She makes one attempt to leave him but he refuses to let her go. He smashes a mirror, hurts his hand and preys on her feelings, making it difficult for her to leave. This emotional blackmail and gaslighting is a common tactic employed by perpetrators to control their victims.

Finally, Pascal forces Roxana to take on the riskiest dive of 180 metres and break the world record since he cannot do it himself. At the pre dive press conference, he unnerves her by inviting his lover to be part of the audience. Later, on the boat just before her dive, he intercepts the equipment that Tom had prepared for her to return to the surface. When she dives and reaches 180 metres, she tries to open the valve of the air tank to inflate the lift bag to bring her up to the surface, but it does not work. Her death is passed off as an accident. Tom knows the truth but he fails to speak up given that Pascal is a towering and forceful personality. He ultimately quits the team. The film is gripping and poignant with beautiful underwater cinematography and actors who do a good job playing the characters.

No Limits explores several themes – the struggles that athletes go through to reach their goals, the personal and professional risks they take to break records, the compromises they make and the single-minded focus required of them. The film also explores the relationship between two athletes who are a couple and how the boundaries between their personal and professional lives are blurred. Pascal’s jealousy and controlling personality has dire consequences on rising star Roxana who ends up losing her life. Roxana, on the other hand, does not have the courage to speak up, say no and establish boundaries on what is acceptable and what is not. Both of them are also surrounded by teammates who noticed but were not strong enough to challenge the excesses displayed by Pascal that put not only him but also all of them at risk.

Many of us can relate to the themes of the film. We often find ourselves in toxic relationships that deplete our energy and manipulate us into taking unnecessary risks. Unfortunately, many women die due to intimate partner violence and at least one in three women experiences some form of sexual assault at least once in her lifetime. This is of pandemic proportions, yet most women do not report violence and many men do nothing to challenge their peers or to prevent it.

It is important to balance intimate and work relationships in a way where we can have honest conversations, hold each other accountable and create safe spaces for us to live, work and thrive in. Roxana, a talented young woman who was just setting out on her journey in free-diving, had her life cut short because of a jealous and self-centred partner and a team that was too afraid to insist on boundaries. In the name of love, women often compromise their wellbeing and safety, putting their trust in people who might not have their best interests at heart. Further, even though free-diving is a team sport, it came across as a lonely sport where one was afraid to share one’s fears, given that the emphasis in the sport is to stay calm and control fear. This makes a case for more investment in mental health and support services for athletes to be able to come forward and report bullying, crime, or even just share their insecurities and get the help they need at the time they need it without judgement.

At the end of the movie I was left wondering what her life might have been like had Roxana survived, and I personally felt a terrible sense of loss for the talent she was.

Cover Image: IMDb