What the sport of skiing may lack in inherent cinematic luster, it makes up for in the captivating allure of its arena: towering pearl-colored mountain ranges, snow-blanketed slopes, the twinkling lights of snow groomers appearing as winking stars from another galaxy. French director Charléne Favier’s exacting feature debut, “Slalom,” puts to work the malleable symbolism of that environment; through the eyes of promising young skier Lyz Lopez (Noée Abita, in one of the best performances of the young year), it goes from personifying liberation to melancholy to smothered despair.
That’s as much a result of “Slalom’s” aesthetic evolution as its straightforward but potent narrative arc. The story centers on Lyz increasingly surrendering her autonomy while her reputation blossoms, a perverse pattern of parallels powering a film that refracts the world of amateur athletics through a similar, emotionally compressive light as last year’s “The Assistant” depicted the entertainment industry. As with Kitty Green’s movie, “Slalom” repurposes the unflinching trajectory of its story (written by Favier and Marie Talon, with a collaboration credit for Antoine Lacomblez) to imbue an otherwise predictable order of events with frostbitten inevitability, all the while interrogating what makes the story predictable in the first place.
Keeping mostly to herself while making good on her ambition of one day skiing in the Olympic Games, Lyz emerges as the young sensation...as well as the primary focus of instruction from her coach, Fred (Jérémie Renier). As coldly detached from any notion of boundaries as this mountainside academy seems to be from the world around it, Fred is eyebrow-raisingly quick to cover Lyz with a towel after she washes off after practice, and his suggestion of adapting her training to her menstrual cycle is far from the first hint that he’s as invasive as he is ostensibly sincere.
Soon – early enough in this movie’s 92 minutes for us to be kept on our toes, late enough for us to have felt the initial tinge of nauseous suspicion – team practices give way to one-on-one training, Fred’s unguarded attention to Lyz starts to itch as prickly precursor to something sinister and “Slalom” begins to churn its naturalistic style into a stark mood piece when he makes the first of multiple unwarranted sexual advances. Favier and Talon may keep their story as unwaveringly focused as Lyz is on the slopes, but especially for an American audience at a time when Larry Nasser’s rampant sexual crimes are still clearly visible in the rear-view mirror of sports history, “Slalom” unfolds within urgent broader contexts of systemic abuse in male-led institutions. Renier’s performance and Fred’s actions – even the ones that benefit Lyz’s training – don’t leave much room for misinterpretation. The treeline continues drawing ever nearer amid the teenaged Lyz’s rise, and the most devastating element of “Slalom” is her total understanding of the things she will have to surrender, and surrender herself to, if her dreams are to become reality.
Abita’s kaleidoscopic performance elevates “Slalom” where, in a lesser director and lead actor’s hands, the narrative weight might shift uneasily to Fred. Favier instead keeps the raw subjectivity of her subject harmonizing with the subject matter. In a movie where it seems every other shot conjured up by cinematographer Yann Maritaud is a close-up, there’s an entire suggested history to discover behind Abita’s eyes and quiet expressions beyond merely a competitor’s focus. Glints of doubt in early scenes lead us to wonder whether her investment in the sport is worth leaving her mom for, and the repetitive motions of training spark a curiosity over whether all this is what Lyz organically wants or simply all she’s ever known. Abita magnificently keeps these possibilities swirling in our heads while snagging our loyalties with the competitive instincts of a newcomer, even if “Slalom” is treading much darker territory than your soft-hearted underdog story.
What makes the character of Lyz so dynamic is a roiling conflict of motivations that sports-centered dramas often sidestep: The emotional mileage athletes endure to extinguish all other distractions, which for Lyz includes a fragmented family situation, a misfiring romance with a teammate and literal isolation. Suddenly, what was once a position with precious little room for error (some early misdirection leads us to think injury will derail Lyz’s potential) becomes a story where the athlete bristles against the walls closing in on her. And after learning of the sacrifices her mother made to enroll her in the academy, Favier makes the quandaries of Lyz’s situation our own to consider. Fred’s advances only bring those psychological compromises closer to psychological entrapment; “He believes in me,” Lyz repeatedly tells concerned teammates, a thorny attempt to justify making herself vulnerable to her coach-turned-abuser eagerly willing to take advantage.
It’s all the more impressive that Favier, working with an effective scarcity of dialogue, leaves it entirely to the audience to contend with the slow emergence of escalating tensions. Diabolical actions in “Slalom” only feel more so because of the power they retain by being addressed not in spoken words, but in sadly knowing glances and a setting that has gone from brightly promising to darkly hollowed out. By the end, what could be construed early on as an eventual the-faster-they-ski-the-harder-they-fall parable has culminated instead in a terrifyingly lonely place, in which Lyz’s athletic glory is cleanly frosted over by that which glory has cost her as an individual.
"Slalom" is not rated. It's available in virtual cinemas via Kino Marquee starting Friday.
Starring: Noée Abita, Jérémie Renier, Marie Denarnaud, Muriel Combeau
Directed by Charléne Favier
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