When 15-year-old Lyz (Noée Abita) signs up for a professional ski training camp ran by ex-champion Fred (Jérémie Renier), she is way behind her fellow students. It doesn’t take long under Fred’s personal tutelage, however, for her to make rapid improvements; she’s soon top of the class and striding towards a coveted spot on France’s Olympic team. It all feels like a dream come true for the young athlete, until Fred’s interest in Lyz starts becoming too personal, and her whole life is upended.
Even before Fred initiates sexual contact with Lyz, their relationship is intensely physical. One of the many clever aspects of Slalom is that – unless you happen to know a lot about skiing – it’s never quite clear how much touching is appropriate between a trainer and their student. The first time they’re alone together, Fred asks Lyz to undress down to her underwear, and then uses forceps on her belly to ascertain her body fat, and thus decide her nutritional regime. Later he massages her thighs before a ski run. As a viewer, its uncomfortable to watch – this is, after all, a grown man and a 15-year-old teenager – but it isn’t clear if he’s actually crossing any lines. What is clear is that Lyz is developing a crush on him, and Fred is actively encouraging it.
About half an hour in, Fred incontrovertibly crosses a line. The way Noée Abita acts the moment when her dreams about her teacher give way to messy reality is crushing. She is not unwilling, but she is a child. Fred is an adult. Their relationship should not be sexual. Making matters worse for Lyz is that she is completely isolated. Her Dad is out of the picture, her Mum is loving yet largely absent, she doesn’t have any friends that she can talk to. Fred is everything to her. He makes himself everything to her. She tries to tells herself that she is an equal partner in this situation, but her increasing discomfort is upsettingly obvious. Eventually she realises that escaping him is going to be necessary for both her personal and professional wellbeing.
Slalom is devastatingly adept at depicting the power dynamics of older men grooming teenage girls. Writer-director Charlène Favier places us so close to Lyz, and Abita is so very good at portraying her complex and contradictory whirlwind of emotions, that the film is often difficult to watch. Favier’s camera is always conscious of bodies; from the professional intimacy of a sports massage to the scenes later on in the movie where Fred looms over Lyz, physically making himself a barrier between her and her mother, who’s finally in a position to help. The way Favier arranges her actors – the queasy, claustrophobic closeness of their bodies – underlines all that is wrong about their relationship much more than dialogue ever could.
Whilst the intensity and discomforting subject matter can be tough-going, Favier’s sensitive direction and Abita’s gut-wrenching lead performance make Slalom vital viewing.