There is a moment — little more than a sidelong glance that lingers fractionally too long — when the uneasy, sinking feeling that Charlène Favier’s Cannes 2020-labeled debut has created to that point becomes an abrupt, stomach-dropping plunge. It’s when you realize that of course this was the story it was going to tell, and almost feel foolish for holding out the hope that its wildly imbalanced central relationship might play out any other way. After that glance, “Slalom” has fewer surprises to pull than fears to confirm, which is not a criticism — that the film remains compelling despite the depressing familiarity of its beats is impressive. It’s also part of the point: We know how this story goes; doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be told.
And so instead of following the usual dramatic rhythm of revelation and reaction, Favier draws us deep into the psychology of her 15-year-old protagonist, Lyz (rising French indie star Noée Abita, actually aged 20 at the time of filming). Lyz is a talented skier who has been chosen for an elite training program which combines schoolwork with a grueling practice regimen that aims ultimately for Olympic selection. Lyz, as inhabited by the absorbingly expressive Abita, is surly, obstinate and aggressively competitive, a volatile mixture of vulnerability and prideful independence, of grown-up attitude and childish petulance. In short, she is a 15-year-old girl.
She is mostly living alone, her literally distant mother (Muriel Combeau) having recently taken a job in Marseille, and she is awed by her coach Fred (Jérémie Renier), whose tough-as-nails, approval-withholding approach to training, coupled with Lyz’s own self-discipline and drive, ignites something inside her. Against the stunning teal-tinged backdrop of snowy Alpine crags at dusk and dawn, her skills improve dramatically.
But Lyz is still just a minor, and her dawning sexuality, all tangled hormonally up with her need to prove herself, the intense scrutiny her body is under and her unhealthy craving for her teacher’s favor, manifests in a crush on Fred. That’s not so serious; the ickiness of Fred being the one to examine her in her underwear, even to pull at her belly with calipers and tell her she needs to “slim down” is offset by his seeming disinterest otherwise. But then Lyz starts to win — the film’s few actual skiing scenes are exhilaratingly well-achieved — and Fred’s mercurial attention snaps to her, just as her friend Justine (Maïra Schmitt) said it would.
Still, even then, there are others around: Fred’s easygoing, friendly girlfriend Lilou (Marie Denarnaud) and Lyz’s fellow skiing hopefuls, including Justine and the cocky object of her affections, Max (Axel Auriant Blot). But then there’s the glance, and the sickening realization that we, too, have been fooled by Fred. Whether he believes it or (almost certainly) not, he has been grooming Lyz, manipulating her insecurities, her gratitude and her naivete until right up to that grubby first encounter and all that comes after: the “see what you do to me” moans, the forced complicity, the emotional violence and Lyz, becoming tighter and more miserable, closing up into herself like a cramped muscle.
The craftsmanship of the film, outside the impressive slalom action, is deliberately subdued, particularly in terms of a rather anonymous score and DP Yann Maritaud’s blue-tinged photography, which is framed to be carefully non-exploitative even in the film’s most sexually frank scenes. Mostly, the camera is magnetized to Lyz, though Maritaud does present some richer, color-blocked, expressionist imagery and some evocative wides (the swerving curve of a road on top of a steep dam with snowbound mountains behind is particularly spectacular) when let a little off the stylistic leash.
But Favier mostly ensures the storytelling stays out of the way of the story, which she locates primarily in two excellent main performances, given ample room by a meticulous, economical script (co-written by Favier and Marie Talon), which relies far more on physical cues — body language, gestures, gazes and expressions — than on verbal communication. Renier gives a masterclass in finding enough sympathy with his loathsome character to play him utterly convincingly, while never trying to elicit similar sympathy from the audience. He might help us understand how an ego like Fred’s can self-justify and self-exculpate, but it doesn’t mean we don’t want to throw him off a bridge.
Similarly Abita, so frequently in closeup, is tremendous in a difficult, demandingly intimate role that clearly understands that showing the complex processes by which a victim might blame herself for her own abuse is not victim-blaming. In fact it’s a vital part of exposing the mechanics of sexual predation in the world of competitive sports and beyond: “Slalom” is a deeply personal story that also functions as almost a psychological prototype for a hundred recent #MeToo headline-makers. Well-made, perceptively performed and deeply enraging, it’s a difficult but necessary watch because of, not despite, the awful predictability and familiarity of a storyline that never deviates from its set course but only picks up momentum, and only ever moves in one direction: downhill.