TW: sexual abuse
Noée Abita is astonishing in Slalom, a debut feature that harrowingly depicts an athlete struggling with sexual abuse at the hands of her coach.
From the beginning of Charlène Favier’s debut feature film Slalom, foreboding messages ring clear. “If you want to go home, now is the time,” snaps Lyz Lopez’s skiing coach, Fred, during a training session in the opening scene. But for 15-year-old Lyz, going home is out of the question. Recently recruited to an elite skiing school in the French Alps, she is unwavering in her pursuit of her ultimate goal: the Olympics. Eager to receive praise from the critical Fred, Lyz works hard to win the preliminary races and quash everyone’s initial doubts about her ability. But securing Fred’s approval comes with a horrifying price. After warning his new students that it is “very important not to hurt yourself,” it is bitterly ironic that Fred causes Lyz unimaginable pain in the form of sexual abuse.
The title’s metaphorical significance becomes clear through Lyz’s turbulent emotions towards Fred and their perverted relationship. At the start, she seems to develop a crush on him, receiving his special attention with a quiet yet ill-concealed pleasure. But when the abuse begins, she oscillates between numb horror and an all-consuming loyalty towards her abuser. The capriciousness of her emotions is painfully apparent in a scene where she is eating dinner alone with Fred, moments after the first assault. Reaching out to touch his hand, she earnestly asks him, “You won’t let me down?”, referring to her desire to reach the Olympics. Though her devotion to Fred is disturbing—especially so soon after the shocking assault—this interaction reveals that her misplaced trust in him is the result of his depraved exploitation of her desires and vulnerability. For Fred is not only the key to the realisation of Lyz’s lofty ambitions. He also offers her the attention and closeness which she fails to receive from her parents—her absent father, who is only referred to in passing, and her distant mother, who works in Marseille and has recently met a new lover. But in this dinner scene, it is striking that, after Fred assures Lyz he’ll help her to reach her goal, she suddenly says she feels unwell and wants to go home. The conflict of Lyz’s emotions is clear; so begins her downhill slalom between visceral revulsion for the abuse (a revulsion she is far too young to even recognise and express) and a deep longing for attention.
Beyond her relationship with Fred, we also see Lyz slalom between emotions in a different way. Indeed, despite centering around the harrowing abuse of a minor, in many ways Slalom is a coming-of-age film, too. It sensitively explores the hothouse experience of adolescence, with the character of Lyz effectively embodying the quintessential teenage condition, swinging like a pendulum between conflicted emotions and desires. Her stubborn yearning for independence is coupled with a delicate naivety. While she expresses a childlike need for her mother’s attention (she cannot hold back her disappointment when her mother reveals she is spending Christmas with her new partner), she simultaneously appears to find it suffocating and shuns it (such as by ignoring her mother’s frequent phone calls). So keen to dip her toes into the waters of adulthood, she even chooses to live alone while training, a choice which her mother does not fully support. Lyz’s attempt to grapple with her burgeoning sexuality also fuels her pendulum-like state, causing her to swing between adult passion and childish indifference. This is clear in how she at first rebuffs the affections of fellow skiing student Max, but soon after seizes the opportunity to kiss him at a party.
The portrayal of Lyz by Noée Abita is nothing short of arresting. Noticeably economical with its dialogue, the script (written by Favier herself alongside Marie Talon) does not give Lyz much to say. It is therefore all the more impressive that Abita succeeds in conveying the young girl’s psyche mostly through her actions and expressions. That being said, Abita’s performance is remarkable not because it is overtly expressive; in fact, it is rather emotionless, and at times even inscrutable. Indeed, throughout the film, Director of Photography Yann Maritaud focuses much on Abita’s wide-eyed, absent-minded gaze—an inattentiveness which worsens as the sexual abuse progresses. When Lyz’s inner torment does occasionally burst through a chink in her hard exterior—expressed with ragged breathing and pained expressions, rather than speech—the impact is all the more poignant. Abita therefore superbly conveys how Lyz represses the anguish swirling within her with a mask of numb detachment, and the soundtrack composed by LoW Entertainment (Alexandre Lier, Sylvain Ohrel & Nicolas Weil) uses thrumming synth sounds in the background of some scenes that wonderfully complement her performance. In a way, Abita’s portrayal of the 15-year-old victim reflects the snow-smothered Alpine backdrop of the film: quiet, still and stifled, yet teetering dangerously on the brink of a devastating avalanche.
The character of Fred, played by Jérémie Renier, cuts an all-too familiar Larry Nassar-esque figure, straight from the dark underbelly of elite sport. Renier’s assured performance captures just how insidiously coaches like Fred subtly groom their victims. He effortlessly slaloms between Fred’s different personas throughout the film, hop-scotching around the boundaries of his relationship with Lyz—at times harsh and aloof, at times caring and fatherly, at times overly friendly and involved, but, ultimately, always a manipulative sexual predator. Admittedly, some viewers might consider the familiarity of Fred’s character and the predictability of the film as a whole a drawback, but Favier’s intimate focus on the psychological descent of the victim makes her version of the story all the more jarring, heartbreaking and important.
Slalom tells a graphic story of child abuse in elite sport that is sadly predictable and familiar, but evertheless shocking in its delivery. By far the film’s most impressive aspect is the subtle performance of Noée Abita, who captures the complex psychology of 15-year-old Lyz.
Slalom will stream exclusively on Curzon Home Cinema from Friday 12 February.
Words by Reem Ahmed
Support The Indiependent
We’re trying to raise £200 a month to help cover our operational costs. This includes our ‘Writer of the Month’ awards, where we recognise the amazing work produced by our contributor team. If you’ve enjoyed reading our site, we’d really appreciate it if you could donate to The Indiependent. Whether you can give £1 or £10, you’d be making a huge difference to our small team.