Charlène Favier‘s debut feature is every bit as fearless as its female protagonist trains to be.
The first lesson for 15-year-old Lyz Lopez (Noée Abita) in Slalom is an appropriately harsh one, considering the film’s subject matter. To become a world-class skiing champion, she has to overcome all fear, all under the guidance of an overbearing coach (Jérémie Renier) who grooms her in more ways than one.
Set in a top-tier school for future Olympic athletes, Slalom keeps its laser focus on its ambitious protagonist, and the way the coach-champion relationship can open itself up to incredible manipulation and abuse. Lyz has a tremendous amount of talent, as well as the desire to achieve her lofty ambitions; she’s been skiing since she was a kid, and wants this more than anyone. The purpose of her isolation in this elite, mountaintop ski club is to create the ultimate training ground for refining her skills. Unfortunately, it’s also the perfect environment for exploitation.
This is Charlène Favier’s first narrative, feature-length film after her 2010 documentary Is everything possible, Darling? and a slew of short films since. The up-and-coming French writer/director keenly establishes a set of benchmarks that track the progression of physical and psychological abuse — starting with strict severity, then gradually building trust, then deepening that trust into dependence.
It’s a tragically beautiful and all-too inevitable experience to witness a girl this young caught within the icy grip of a man, one who’s framed as pathetic, desperate, and manipulative — as he would have to be to incite such a harrowing situation.
Favier strikes a tricky balance here, consistently allowing nuance for Lyz’s own agency in these matters, as she’s a girl who finds herself partly infatuated and even obsessed with the attention of someone who is inflicting real trauma on her. Abita pulls this off brilliantly, often displaying the mental waves of how she decides to interpret each event in real-time, never overdoing her reactions or expressing a fully confident stance on what just happened and why.
Much of Slalom fixates on this core dynamic, as it should. But its side characters never manage to make a decent impression by comparison. With the exception of the coach’s girlfriend, Lilou (Marie Denarnaud), who slowly shifts from an absent character to a hopeful lifeline in this otherwise unforgiving environment.
It’s not about what we know is coming, but rather how we see these things happen in slow motion.
Eventually, the audience has a pretty clear idea of what to expect from this mostly rote plot, and there aren’t many surprises to keep the already condensed runtime feeling swift and efficient. Thankfully, cinematographer Yan Maritaud (Cuties) sharply infuses every scene, even the most placid in terms of concept, with the movement of a thriller — particularly with how he uses reflections and foreground to create “ghosts” haunting Lyz in several key scenes. Also, these are some of the most tense and nerve-wracking skiing sequences put to film since maybe Daniel Etter’s Where the Light Shines.
While some of the themes are a bit on-the-nose, Favier’s script wisely demonstrates how confusing sexuality can feel at such a young age and why preying upon these vulnerabilities can cause real, permanent damage. For that reason, it’s not about what we know is coming, but rather how we see these things happen in slow motion, and why no one stops or even notices it in time.
Many films tend to lose their nerve when tackling these difficult topics, often cutting to the chase too quickly or suddenly, or prolonging these moments for sake of shock value. Favier clearly spent a profound amount of time and energy giving this character study all the time and care it deserves, highlighting the ways abuse — at its most subtle and overt — can warp every aspect of your life, often without you even realizing the extent of it.
Slalom skis its way into select theaters April 9th and to Music Box Direct April 16th, courtesy of Kino Lorber.