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For a debut feature, writer-director Charlène Favier’s powerful coming-of-age sports drama Slalom couldn’t come at a more timely moment.
Beautifully directed and performed, it tells the story of a prodigious 15-year-old skier drawn into an exploitative sexual relationship with her older male coach, evoking several scandals that have made headlines in recent years — most notably the USA Gymnastics debacle that broke in 2016, but also French cases in the worlds of figure skating, tennis and swimming.
And yet what makes Slalom more than a mere movie of the week is how it remains, from start to finish, an engrossingly subjective account of ambivalence and abuse, with the entire narrative filtered through the anxious gaze of its star athlete, Lyz (portrayed by the excellent Noée Abita, who broke out in the 2017 Cannes film Ava).
Whether she’s racing downhill, lifting weights, straining her limbs to the breaking point or being groomed to commit highly questionable acts with her trainer, Fred (Dardennes regular Jérémie Renier), we’re always right alongside Lyz — a girl who, like most teens, is a whirlwind of contradictions.
Indeed, the film’s title refers as much to skiing as it does to the way its heroine is constantly swinging between conflicting emotions. We know Lyz is feeling many things at once, but we don’t always know what they are, aside from a fair amount of elation when she wins her competitions and also lots of pain: both the physical pain of hardcore sports training and the psychological pain of a lopsided relationship where she’s at once pupil and victim.
The French have a good term for this type of predicament: emprise, which means the hold or influence that one person can have over another. Fred’s hold over Lyz builds and builds until it winds up consuming her entirely. He rules equally over her mind and her body, and she seems to have no way out from his grip. And yet Favier also reveals the gradual hold that Lyz maintains over Fred — a man who flubbed his own career because of an injury and is now living vicariously through the exploits of his prize student, shaping her into a fierce competitor and Olympic hopeful.
Taking the form of a bildungsroman, the script (written by Favier and Marie Talon) follows Lyz as she enters an elite skiing high school in the heart of the French Alps (the film was shot in Les Arcs ski station, also the setting for Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure). Abandoned by her mother (Muriel Combeau), who’s relocated to Marseille for a job, Lyz starts training along with a handful of other prize athletes, suffering Fred’s relentless tutelage and drill-sergeant mentality. “He crushes you, you listen, and you get better,” is how Lyz’s only friend, Justine (Maïra Schmitt), describes the regimen they all have to undergo, and through which Lyz begins to blossom.
Not unlike the spray-painted blue lines the skiers follow down the slopes, charting their paths from the starting gate, the film takes a foreseeable course — an unwavering downward spiral — as Lyz’s infatuation with Fred, and vice versa, heads to its foregone conclusion. You can criticize Favier for being predictable, even too on the nose at points, but her movie’s interest lies less in its plot than in how its scenes unfold.
The tense, nebulous bond that can form between teacher and student, especially from the latter’s viewpoint, is at the heart of nearly every sequence, beginning with an uneasy scene of Lyz stripping down in front of Fred so he can weigh and measure her, after which he asks about her menstrual cycle. This seems to be an everyday occurrence at the school, where the girls need to place total faith in their coach if they want to succeed, crossing boundaries you wouldn’t normally cross in regular life.
Soon enough, Lyz and Fred are working together late into the night and on the weekends. When she starts getting bad grades, Fred convinces the head of the school, as well as Lyz’s mom, that she’d be better off living in his flat, where his girlfriend (Marie Denarnaud) can provide extra tutoring and Fred even more hands-on training — which is literally what happens when he pushes their relationship to the next level.
Gorgeously shot in hot and cold colors by Yann Maritaud (Cuties), who contrasts Lyz’s blazing emotions with the frozen mountaintop exteriors, the photography keeps us forever glued to the burgeoning champion’s side both indoors and out. In a move that gives the sports scenes a thrilling you-are-there rush, Favier sent a camera operator flying down the slopes alongside a pro skier, keeping us in Lyz’s headspace even when she’s going so fast that the rest of the world can’t keep up with her. And during the film’s two agonizing sex scenes, we’re also right there with her, witnessing an array of feelings that run the gamut from passion to disgust to confusion.
The issue of whether Fred is breaking the law by sleeping with his student never comes up because Lyz is 15, which is the current age for legal consent in France. (The law has been thrown into question recently, especially in light of the scandal involving pedophile writer Gabriel Matzneff.) And yet Slalom seems to be saying that what Fred is doing to Lyz is criminal indeed — if not on paper, then in the way he dominates her to an obscene level. Renier skillfully plays the ski star turned instructor as a born overachiever with nothing left to achieve himself, and he often walks around like a defeated man.
Abita brings something else to Lyz: an almost nonstop feeling of uncertainty, of not knowing if her character is doing the right or wrong thing, if she’s in the process of winning or losing. Lyz is put through the wringer for most of the running time, breaking her body in order to succeed (at one point she exposes her chest to show how it’s covered in bruises), or giving her body to Fred because that’s what he’s groomed her for, to the point where she can no longer see clearly. In one of her pivotal races, this is precisely what happens when the snow dust grows so thick that it clogs Lyz’s goggles — and yet she somehow comes out on top. The victory is a testament to her incredible drive and resolve, but it’s a bitter one.
Production company: Mille et une productions
Venue: Cannes 2020 (Official Selection).
Cast: Noée Abita, Jérémie Renier, Marie Denarnaud, Muriel Combeau, Maïra Schmitt, Axel Auriant
Director: Charlène Favier
Screenwriters: Charlène Favier, Marie Talon
Producers: Edouard Mauriat, Anne-Cécile Berthomeau
Director of photography: Yann Maritaud
Production designer: Julie Wassef
Costume designer: Judith de Luze
Editor: Maxime Pozzi Garcia
Composer: Low Entertainment
Casting director: Martin Rougier
Sales: The Party Film Sales
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