DIRECTOR: CHARLENE FAVIER
CAST: NOEE ABITA; JEREMIE RENIER; MARIE DENARNAUD
FRANCE 2021; 92 MINS; ENGLISH SUBTITLES; CERT 18
AVAILABLE ON CURZON HOME CINEMA - FEBRUARY 2021
REVIEW by SUSAN GRAY
Blurred lines is the overwhelming first impression of Charlene Favier’s debut feature Slalom. The opening shot shows a blur of figures and faces, moving in circles, and hard to distinguish from the whirling snow surrounding them. As the scene becomes clearer we see thinly clad Lyz Lopez (Noée Abita), bending and jumping through a circuit of obstacles, while instructor Fred (Jérémie Renier) shouts at her for being too slow. Then Lyz breaks away from the group of ski- training adolescents, to reassure her mother Catherine (Muriel Combeau), watching from the sidelines, that she is not cold, as she hugs her arms deeper into her body.
Romance and a job in Marseilles sideline Madame Lopez, emotionally and geographically, further and further away from her daughter, leaving Lyz to cope with the intensity of training for competitive skiing, the rivalries and crushes of fellow students, and predatory Fred, all on her own.
Far from being glamorous, Favier captures the dystopian dreariness of purpose built ski resorts, all concrete, bunker- like chalets, multi lane motorways and self service restaurants. The landscape’s unrelenting portrayal is reminiscent of Tarkovsky. There’s little music, no artwork, and the only interior decoration is skiing trophies. World Team, the team Lyz skies for, wear hideous clothing branded with a wolf, looking like the worst dredges of a late night shopping channel. Lyz’ bedtime routine of eating dry protein powder straight from the box ‘to build muscle mass’ is a symbolically dreary and reductive end to each gruelling day.
Slalom’s narrative of plucky outsider, showing her worth with grit and steeliness, and achieving her goal, but at a great personal cost, feels like fairytale as old as time. Flavier only touches on the effect of Lyz’ success on her friendship with less ambitious skier Justine (Maïra Schmitt), as the thrust of the story is the abusive instructor-student relationship the 15 year old has with Fred. As Lyz transforms from runt of the team to champion, so Fred’s attitude changes from belittling to cooly critical to possessive. Initially Lyz revels in her newfound teacher’s pet status, because in Fred she has found an adult ‘who believes in me’. The teenager’s vulnerabilities make her heedless to the sanguine Justine’s warning ‘If you break your leg, Fred won’t be interested in you.’
Of course Fred’s dark interest has been telegraphed since he pops into the swimming pool shower to mansplain periods to his promising new student. From there it is escalating ‘special’ celebrations of Lyz’s achievements, leading inevitably to the evening car journey, the parking in an isolated spot, and the chilling shirking of responsibility: ‘Look at the effect you have on me.’ Again, the abuser’s age old ploy of making adolescent girls believe they have great power, when they are being stripped of all agency and sense of self.
Favier’s close up style, only occasionally moving away for wide and aerial shots, gives Slalom the texture of documentary. It’s as if we are flies on the concrete chalet walls. When Lyz enquires of a pharmacist the cost of the morning after pill, he deadpans it ‘is free for minors’, as if no more need be said on the matter.
Of course Slalom is no nineteenth centre morality play, and Lyz is no Tess of the D’Ubervilles. The film is a female directed, 2020 movie, framed by the MeToo movement exploring the harsh system for turning young women into world class elite skiers. And while Favier’s style has a documentary touch, the direction is artful and witty: we know Lyz has won a competition through the merest glimpse of a medal ribbon. And all the performances are pitched just right to carry off this hybrid detached-yet-intimate style.
And for so many women, even if they have never skied or set foot on a mountain, Slalom will feel powerfully autobiographical.