Is this a tale of abuse, or forbidden love? Or is there something insidious in asking that question, suggesting an ambiguity that will err leniently on the side of love? Slalom is the debut feature by director and co-writer Charlène Favier, who has indicated that it is drawn from personal experience and her own teen years growing up in the ski resort of Val-d’Isère in south-eastern France. It is impeccably acted and beautifully shot, although I wondered if it is burdened by a softcore-tasteful aesthetic and a tactful reluctance to take its own narrative implications very far. The movie finishes on an unresolved chord, as if we have left the story months or years before the actual scandalous denouement. But it is arguably faithful to the mood of messy bewilderment and frustration that governs the ongoing situation.
A retired slalom ski champion – whose retirement might have been due to injury – is now pouring all his passion and frustration into coaching in a facility leased from a school. This is Fred, played by Jérémie Renier, who is a fierce and exacting teacher of teenage skiers, turning them into possible national champions and even future contestants at the Olympic Games. Almost from the very first, it is clear that his star pupil is 16-year-old Lyz, played by Noée Abita, who has got what it takes both in terms of skill and energy but also those dark, fissile ingredients of submission and self-abasement. Her divorced mum Catherine (Muriel Combeau) is away working in Marseille, and has a new boyfriend there, leaving Lyz alone in the apartment.
So Lyz is lonely, in need of love and a parent figure. Fred is dynamic and compelling, but with an abuser’s mastery of combining insults with praise: he humiliates Lyz and berates her in front of the others (because he believes in her, naturally, and is supposedly angry at her for falling short of her potential) and then switches devastatingly to gentleness and praise and a boyish delight when she wins. When Lyz’s academic grades start to slide (her ski training is conditional on good schoolwork) and her mother confesses she can’t be at home to help with her studies, Fred suggests that Lyz move in with him and his partner, Lilou (Marie Denarnaud).
Favier cleverly shows how, when the sexual approaches happen, they are horribly inevitable because they fold into a physically intimate existence that Fred has spent many months getting Lyz used to. The training process has actually been grooming (a word once associated with preparing someone for greatness or stardom). The initial scenes in which Fred briskly and unselfconsciously tells Lyz to strip to her underwear (in his office, with no one else present) so he can weigh her and measure her body fat are almost unwatchable, because the movie, like Fred’s face, is deadpan. More obviously charged is the moment when Fred comes to see Lyz in the girls’ showers (she has not removed her costume) and tells her to be proud of her periods.
But there is nothing deadpan or ambiguous about what happens later. The key question is: who else knows and has it happened before? The grey area between passionately committed teaching and abuse is a familiar topic. Yet the film ingeniously merges it with the ambiguous experience of slalom ski-ing: exhilarating and euphoric, but also dangerous and even an emotional death-wish, surrendering to the downhill rush.
• Released on 12 February on Curzon Home Cinema.