French filmmaker Charlène Favier explores a sexually abusive relationship between a talented young skier and her predatory coach in Slalom. Directed with both sensitivity and brio, this gripping and haunting drama gets to the heart of the power that abusers hold over their victims.
In the wake of the publication of Camille Kouchner’s (daughter of former French minister Bernard Kouchner) damning book, alleging the childhood sexual abuse of her twin brother by Olivier Duhamel and unearthing a raft of French #MeToo stories, Slalom is a timely reckoning with France’s cultural ambivalence towards sexual abuse.
Taken place entirely among the frozen mountaintops of an elite skiing resort, Slalom sees Lyz (Noée Abita) training with a host of other talented young skiers in what could be her first steps towards competing in the Olympic games. Her coach, Fred (Jérémie Renier) pulls no punches if he thinks his wards aren’t pulling their weight: as Lyz’s companion, Justine (Maïra Schmitt) tells her, he tears you down, you listen, and you get better. Little does Lyz – or, for that matter, the audience – know it, but this is exactly the psychological process through which Fred will manipulate Lyz for his own gratification.
Apart from the obvious narrative imperative, telling this story from Lyz’s perspective is important because it draws us into her early attraction to Fred. Through Lyz’s eyes, Fred is a kind, enigmatic and mature potential partner: a far cry from the gross adolescent antics of her jockish peer Max (Axel Auriant Blot).
The first act underplays the behaviour that we will later recognise as abusive – the remarks about Lyz’s body, the frequent touching as he coaches her, even his interest in her menstrual cycle are all normalised in the context of her training regimen. Indeed, it’s not even clear at this point that Slalom is even a story about abuse. Renier is especially brilliant here, utterly investing in Fred’s belief that he is a dedicated trainer with a healthy affection for his best pupil, one who has nothing but a simple and relatable crush on her mentor.
The turn comes slowly, as we realise that their night-time scenery trips up the mountain and lengthy glances are becoming increasingly inappropriate. The brilliance here is in the way that Fred is not already a seasoned, scheming abuser, but that by turns he allows himself to become one. As we detach from Lyz’s perspective, we see Fred for what he really is – a weak and abusive man enjoying power over a vulnerable girl and the unquestioning thrall in which she holds him. In seeking to understand both abuser and abused, Slalom offers a truly nuanced picture of abuse without sacrificing indictment.
Slalom is available to watch now on Curzon Home Cinema.