Written & Directed by Charlène Favier
In recent years, films across the globe have begun tackling the horror of sexual assault experienced by women & girls for centuries and more. Some critical decisions have to be made when presenting such sensitive content, the largest of which is “How graphic should the depiction of assault be on screen?” This is made even more potentially troubling when it involves an underage victim. In her debut feature, writer-director Charlène Favier doesn’t hold back much when showing her protagonist slowly being groomed and then used by an important authority figure in her life. There are only two sexual encounters throughout the picture, but the director lingers in these moments, which leads to that stomach sinking feeling as you watch how helplessly the young girl just gives in.
Lyz (Noée Abita) is a naturally gifted skier who, at age 15, was chosen for an elite skiing training program. Part of her day is spent in classes and studying at the institute, and the other time, she’s either in a gym working out or on the slopes, improving her times. Guiding Lyz is her coach Fred (Jérémie Renier), a demanding overlord, though he shows moments of kindness when Lyz proves to be the best in his current year’s class. It doesn’t seem like this will be a story of sexual abuse at first, possibly just a narrative about a young person passionate about her sport but not really supported by the adults around her. Slowly but surely, the sexual tension builds. From Lyz’s perspective, it makes sense that she would develop feelings for Fred. He’s older but not elderly, an athletic & attractive man. She accidentally glimpses him nude in the locker room without his awareness, but she doesn’t pursue him.
It is Fred who crosses that line. Lyz is certainly eyeing him with lust, but any rational person knows she’s a child, developing in her sexuality, and he’s the adult who should know how to refocus things away from anything inappropriate. But he doesn’t and guides her hand to pleasure him one night while driving around after practice. Lyz doesn’t recoil; instead, the scene is played as a mix of hormonally driven lust and confusion. She has an absent mother, and her father seems to not even be on the map. Fred’s attention and praise are greeted with a greater value as a result. So his inappropriate sexual attention creates a dissonance in her mind. Something in Lyz is telling her this isn’t right, but she’s so caught up in the moment she just lets Fred take the lead.
Fred isn’t presented as a one-dimensional villain, which is essential to the story. In real life, abusers and groomers aren’t mustache-twirling caricatures. We’re never given insight as to if Fred has done this before; my own reading of the film is that this is probably the first time. Doesn’t excuse him in the slightest, though. He has forgotten the responsibilities he has to his students, and there’s no justification. There’s even a live-in girlfriend who works at the school on the academic side and welcomes Lyz into their home when her grades slip and she needs more regular supervision.
Favier presented Fred in a neutral manner to create the effect of grooming within the audience. For the first act of the film, some moments cause us to raise an eyebrow, but then they pass without further comment. Just a misinterpretation, we tell ourselves, we were reading into it. We’re placed into the same mindset as Lyz and made to see her sexual naivete as potentially harmless. But when the two encounters occur, Favier so skillfully changes the tone, mainly through Abita’s performance. The 20-year-old French actress perfectly captures the youthful psychology of Lyz and conveys her horrified confusion so subtly. She doesn’t cry because this man is abusing her; she just seems shocked. After the act, she sits there, hand covered in Fred’s ejaculate, and just simply wants to wipe it off. You can sense the out-of-body moment happening, the focus on mechanical action while avoiding the psychological alarms going off inside her.
It’s hard not to be reminded of the revelation of systemic sexual abuse among American gymnastics because of Dr. Larry Nassar. When adults are placed in these positions of intimacy with children’s bodies, we assume they will behave professionally. These adults will inevitably see these children nude as they go about physical therapy in training. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that because sport is about physicality. The problem is when the adult fails to behave as a professional, ethical person and completely disregards the trust these young people put in them. Sport, in particular, creates an out-of-balance power dynamic where the young athlete is meant to surrender almost everything to this taskmaster. Slalom gives us constant close-ups of Lyz’s face, allowing Abita to process the character’s emotions, almost always wordlessly. There’s never an on-the-nose, direct encounter between the two, but the girl can convey her anger towards Fred for his betrayal by the end of the film. This resolution is left open-ended; no authorities are getting involved from what we see; this isn’t a courtroom drama. The picture’s focus is to empower victims like Lyz to process & understand what has happened to them and then to summon up the power to confront their assailants, whether directly (as is in Lyz’s case) or emotionally a means of healing.
Slalom isn’t just a film about sexual assault though, it’s actually a wonderfully shot sports drama about skiing on top of that, in the tradition of Robert Redford’s classic Downhill Racer. Favier does an excellent job shooting that action, and for someone like me who has even less than a passing interest in skiing, I was caught up in the action. The setting is used beautifully, and you can easily see what this sport would lure a person in. The speed as you hurtle downhill has to be quite exhilarating for a young person who is often made to sit and wait for orders from an adult. Director Favier has undoubtedly put herself on the map with this thoughtfully and beautifully crafted drama. If she continues working at this skill level, I cannot wait to see what she gives us next.