French director Charlène Favier's debut feature film follows Lyz (a fantastic Noée Abita), a 15-year-old girl who gets accepted into an elite skiing program in the French Alps despite her relative lack of experience. There she comes under the tutelage of Fred (Jérémie Renier), an extremely demanding program director who pushes his students physically and emotionally to the limit.
Left alone by her mother, Lyz quickly becomes an isolated target for the predatory Fred. The film keenly tracks all the tiny violations that lead up to an initial sexual transgression: how Fred commands Lyz to undress in his office, measuring her body fat; the way he patronizingly talks to her about her period; how he warms up her legs and rubs snow on her neck before her race begins. It sets the young girl up for a giant violation by her coach, one that quickly spirals once she moves in with him and his girlfriend.
Told from Lyz's perspective and drawn from Favier's experience as an athlete, Slalom sketches out an indefinite and challenging portrait of abuse that ends somewhat ambiguously. The rape scenes between the two are hard to watch, powered by Fred's overwhelming will while Lyz's appears to float away. Lyz is horrified by her coach's behavior, but she defends their relationship to her friends, her family, and herself, despite the pain it causes her.
In interviews, Favier is quick to bring up that she doesn't see Fred as a serial abuser—the film is more interested in how intense environments can undermine people's sense of limits. Here, Fred deals with his own insecurity by feeding on Lyz's success as a young woman and skier, creating a relationship where her self-worth hangs on his treatment of her. Although she grows as an athlete under his scrutinizing eye and becomes a real Olympic contender, as a person, Lyz withers throughout the film.
"In the sports world, the training is based on destabilizing, and what the other person will be able to put up with, and what they can tolerate," Favier told Salon about the film. "Lyz is questioning her relationship with pain. It's about losing one's bearing and pushing one's limit."
This manipulation plays out against the severe backdrop of the Alps, its beauty always underscored by an underlying danger. Long shots of the stoic landscape are incorporated throughout the film, with Lyz often staring into the distance, seemingly tied up with the giant mountain range's eternal nature. Coupled with tight skiing shots that emphasize the sport's emotional intensity, Favier creates an atmosphere of overwhelming isolation. It's icy and intense viewing.
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