The first shot of Slalom is of a teenage girl’s ass. This French movie which played at last year’s virtual Cannes Film Festival has been the subject of controversy in Europe, less because of its careful marking of the underage protagonist’s body as she trains to be a high-level athlete and more because of its delineation of her relationship with her adult coach as it turns sexual. This movie represents something necessary in a country where the film establishment still gives awards to Roman Polanski and filmmakers — female filmmakers! — still proclaim Harvey Weinstein as a hero. Let’s not pretend we’re so innocent, though, after we’ve seen Penn State football and USA Gymnastics let predators rape children for decades in their houses. For that reason particularly, this sports drama is vital viewing as it plays at Grand Berry Theater this week.
Our main character is Lyz Lopez (Noée Abita), a 15-year-old skier who dreams of going to the Olympics. Her divorced mother (Catherine Marchal) drops her off in the French Alps at a ski academy for promising boys and girls that’s run by a hardass instructor named Fred (Jérémie Renier). Maman has to leave Lyz alone at the school because her new job is in Marseille, about 200 miles away. Fred drills his students ruthlessly, and his girlfriend (Marie Denarnaud) oversees the kids’ education when they’re not on the slopes. After Lyz starts winning races, Fred spends more time with her. Then one night they go joyriding on a deserted auto racing track, and when the car stops, he shows her his erect penis.
This is the first fiction film by Charlène Favier, who has previously made shorts and a documentary feature about Australian hippies called Is Everything Possible, Darling? She grew up in the ski resort of Val d’Isère, and the sequences of Lyz navigating the courses (filmed with body doubles) are some of the best skiing scenes I’ve ever seen on film. They don’t do anything complex: the camera simply follows behind her as she carves neatly around the gates, and the downhill speed of the picture captures the adrenaline rush that Lyz feels when she’s competing.
By now I’ve seen a number of excellent and properly disturbing movies on the psychological effects of child sex (L.I.E., Blue Car, Fish Tank, An Education, The Diary of a Teenage Girl), and while this film is in that league, it doesn’t really tell me anything those other films didn’t. They all know how easily illicit sex can happen when an adult has all the power in a relationship and extends just a little encouragement to a child. True, Lyz is in an environment where coaches putting hands on athletes is nothing unusual, and she truly wants to be the best, unlike some of her fellow skiers. This makes it more difficult to leave, especially since Fred’s tutelage produces measurable improvements in her performance. Then again, she has a thrill-seeking personality and on some level likes the turn in her relationship with Fred. Then once more, when the fallout causes her grades to fall off, he tells that her feelings are a distraction that she needs to block out. He may want an Olympic medal for her as much as she does, but he never quite seems to grasp how his actions have messed with her head.
Favier strikes a delicate balance in the sex scenes, keeping the camera on Lyz’ face when she first has sexual intercourse with Fred. (You’ll be happy to know that Abita is 22 in real life, though she looks like Mila Kunis during her teen years.) It might have been nice if the film had gone into the messy legal ramifications of reporting such a person to the authorities. Even so, it results in a great scene in a hotel room when Lyz’ Maman finally returns for an extended period, and Lyz can’t tell her mother why she can’t stop crying. Slalom ends on an indelibly ambiguous note, as Lyz wins the biggest race of her life. Instead of celebrating, she ignores Fred’s pleas to meet with the press and instead wanders off and stares into the snow, trying to sort out all the violent and contradictory feelings crowding in on her. Perhaps the most haunting thing to take away from the film, that image illustrates this film’s power.
Starring Noée Abita and Jérémie Renier. Directed by Charlène Favier. Written by Charlène Favier and Marie Talon. Not rated.