The biggest problem with Slalom is convincing people to watch it. This feature directorial debut boasts a young lead, difficult subject matter and a slight sense of familiarity. But if a well-trod topic is worth covering at all and you’ve got something profound and sincere to say about it, then why not say it? Writer-director Charlène Favier, co-writers Antoine Lacomblez and Marie Talon and lead actor Noée Abita have fashioned a perceptive, incisive movie out of the profundity and sincerity of their observations and out of their combined artistic skill.

Lyz (Abita) is a 15-year-old hopeful skiing star training alongside peers under the tutelage of Fred (Jérémie Renier), a former ski champion. His method is tough and she responds to her initial difficulties keeping pace with her classmates by retreating into her practice, eventually overtaking them all to become Fred’s most promising pupil. As he focuses ever more attention on her – intimate, emotionally intense attention – their teacher-student relationship begins to morph into a sexual, highly unethical one, with predictably problematic results for Lyz–seemingly, only Lyz.

Rarely is the remarkable level of artistic freedom afforded to directors in France as evident as when they opt to pursue something seemingly paradoxical to freedom. Give an American filmmaker unlimited funds and final cut on a project of their choice and they’ll likely turn out something wild, ambitious and highly idiosyncratic. Give a French filmmaker similar advantages and they may just turn out something distinctly familiar. A complex, chilly study of adolescent sexuality and its exploitation by predatory adults isn’t just the sort of thing unlikely to be greenlit in the American system, it’s the sort of thing smart French filmmakers have been producing for years; not just a complex, chilly study of adolescent sexuality but yet another complex, chilly study of adolescent sexuality.

Critical to Slalom’s success is its handling of this storyline, which is established right from the movie’s opening and which reverberates right through to its close. Favier isn’t coy with detail – the graphic sexual scenes again set her pic apart from comparable American titles – but Slalom is not some blunt, assaultive quasi-horror movie about the cruelty of damaged, twisted men in authority positions. Every element of its scenario is informed by a probing, unyielding, integrally compassionate understanding of Lyz’s emotional state. Her situation is one of physical pressures inevitably manifest as feelings and behaviour, her proximity to an already abusive older man makes her further vulnerable. Favier and Abita examine this situation with nuance and resolute empathy, extended even to Fred: rather than portray him as a monster, a person of immutable evil, they develop his character with insight and subtlety. Through Renier’s performance, we come to see him as a vividly real figure; not one defined wholly by his abhorrent behaviour but one driven by abhorrent impulses and inseparable from the wreckage he causes through acting upon them. He’s an altogether richer and more menacing villain as a result, an identifiably human figure committing identifiably human atrocities.

Renier is excellent; Abita is even more so, though Slalom is gratifyingly unburdened with poor work on any fronts. Yann Maritaud’s cinematography is striking and evocative; Martin Rougier’s casting is spot-on; the whole thing feels crafted with care and diligence toward its central narrative thematic goals. It is, alas, a tad familiar, though not injuriously so – if it feels like we’ve seen a lot of this before, it at least feels like we’ve rarely seen it done with such acuity and sensitivity. A modest film in scope and scale, it nevertheless possesses a depth of emotional intelligence and a clarity of expression that prove more than adequate qualities to compensate for its moderate familiarity.

Summary
This challenging and rewarding film is characterized by its intelligence and compassion.
79 %
SMOOTH SKIING
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