Slalom is being billed as a Me Too movie set in the world of competitive skiing, and while that is an understandable (and not necessarily incorrect) way to describe Charlène Favier’s debut feature, it does the picture a mild injustice. The film is too rich and too human for any kind of categorization. But for all its beauty, it’s also quite an unsettling watch — a delicate, authentic look at the complicated ways in which abuse works.
Much of the film’s power derives from the performance of newcomer Noée Abita as Lyz, a 15-year-old girl at a boarding school in the Swiss Alps, where she has joined an elite ski team led by Fred (Jérémie Renier), a tough coach who thinks nothing of manhandling the kids’ bodies, telling them to undress so he can weigh them or measure how much extra fat they have on their waists. He even asks probing questions about their menstrual cycles. Already wide-eyed and anxious, Lyz never quite settles: She’s new at this place, and doesn’t quite know how to negotiate her way around the other kids and their tangled relationships. She feels uprooted, thanks partly to the fact that her mother has a job that keeps her away most of the time. Lyz also seems unsure about her talents as a skier, an insecurity that Fred’s no-nonsense ways do nothing to allay, at least initially.
At first, Fred’s behavior doesn’t feel particularly sexual, or even leering. He doesn’t even look at Lyz all that much; for him, she reads as a bunch of parts. Early on, the movie frames him as pretty much entirely focused on what will make these kids better skiers. Renier, a phenomenally versatile actor and the veteran of many a Dardenne brother film, brings just the right amount of dismissive charisma to the part. Fred is so assured that even we in the audience might find ourselves initially drawn to him, a little bit.
Still, you can sense well in advance where this story is going. But it’s to director Favier’s credit that almost nothing in Slalom feels specifically predictable, or tired. At first, before everything goes south, we experience Lyz and Fred’s triumph during skiing competitions, when all of the girl’s awkwardness goes away and she transforms into a graceful dynamo on the slopes. The electrifying camerawork of the skiing sequences might at first feel a bit off-note, but it’s important to show Lyz’s exhilaration, the intoxication of victory and success that pushes her and Fred closer together. He begins to live vicariously through her, and she begins to believe that he is integral to her success.
Favier, who based the story partly on her own experiences as a young athlete, has said in interviews that she wanted to go “beyond the dichotomy between the monster and the victim.” Her depiction of Fred is not as a scheming, serial predator, but rather as a man whose confident exterior hides someone even more screwed up and immature than the young, lost girl that he’s become drawn to. That’s not to say the film lets him off the hook, however. Fred has been entrusted with this girl’s well-being, but doesn’t have any idea what that actually entails, or how to see her as an actual person. He’s a broken narcissist who doesn’t understand anything about boundaries, or agency, or even trust.
Slalom (which was one of the titles that would have competed at the 2020 Cannes Film Festival, had the festival actually happened) is a mesmerizing movie. Its surfaces are often lovely, even as the story it tells becomes more and more horrific. It’s also psychologically astute about the consequences of Fred’s actions. In some ways, the film comes into its own in its second half: The story becomes more fractured, impressionistic, as if Lyz is dissociating from her experiences and the world in general, her earlier rootlessness now becoming a kind of existential fragmentation. A more conventional, satisfying narrative would have perhaps moved toward a kind of horrifying clarity. But in refusing to offer us a clear resolution, Slalom suggests something even more horrifying — which such stories rarely do.