Slalom (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A chilly but harrowing observation of sexual abuse

French film “Slalom” is often disturbing and uncomfortable to watch as a chilly but harrowing observation of sexual abuse. As its young athlete heroine gets more confused, pressured, and exploited due to someone on whom she is supposed to depend a lot, we are chilled more while observing her increasingly helpless state, and we are relieved a bit when there comes a small sign of hope and resilience in the end.

At the beginning, the movie gradually establishes the ongoing situation of a female adolescent skier named Lyz Lopez (Noée Abita). She is excited to be at some prestigious ski training camp along with several other adolescent skiers including her best friend Justine (Maïra Schmitt), and she is not so bothered by being left alone there by her single mother Catherine (Muriel Combeau), who will not be around her daughter that often as she has to work in a city far from there.

Anyway, Lyz and other young trainees at the ski training camp are going to be supervised under their coach Fred (Jérémie Renier) and his wife Lilou (Marie Denarnaud) during next several months. As a guy who was once a promising ski champion before a couple of serious leg injuries, Fred is already quite determined to bring the best out of his young trainees, and Lilou is also ready to help their schoolwork in the meantime.

Unlike Justine, who just simply enjoys skiing without much ambition, Lyz is eager to be the best of the bunch someday, and that aspect of hers is soon noticed by Fred, who gives her more help and support once he discerns that she does have considerable potentials. After she wins the gold medal at a small local competition, he promptly gets a sponsor to help her financially, and Lyz is certainly excited even though being pressured more for more wins in addition to being a bit ostracized by her fellow trainees.

And she does not mind at all when Fred subsequently comes closer to her than before. As reflected by a brief scene where she happens to get a glimpse of her coach’s naked body, Lyz has been interested in sex and man a lot just like many other girls around her age, and she surely enjoys receiving much more attention from her coach than before. At one night, they have a little private time together on a cable car stopped in the middle of the track, and this rather nervous moment clearly implies to us how tricky their situation has become mainly due to Fred’s evidently unwholesome attention to Lyz.

And then there inevitably comes a very disturbing moment which will make you wince more than once for good reasons. While understandably shocked and confused by what happened between her and her coach, Lyz lets herself manipulated and exploited more by her coach, and that leads to more confusion and misery for her while she continues to be pressured more and more for the upcoming important competitions.

Steadily maintaining its calm and chilly tone, the movie subtly and sensitively delves more into its young heroine’s accumulating emotional conflict and how that considerably affects her relationships with several others around her. As her best friend, Justine soon comes to sense that something wrong is going on between Lyz and their coach, but there is nothing she can do about that except reminding Lyz that she does know, and the same thing can be said about Lilou, who has quietly suspected that her husband has been doing quite inappropriate things to Lyz – especially since her husband let Lyz staying at their residence for giving some help on her schoolwork.

While struggling with her emotional issues way over her head, Lyz continues to train as hard as demanded by her coach, who becomes more strict and abusive to her as a very important competition is approaching. When that important moment finally comes around the end of the story, the movie becomes more tense than before as cinematographer Yann Maritaud’s camera effortlessly glides along the ski track along with our heroine, and director Charlène Favier, who wrote the screenplay with Marie Talon and Antoine Lacomblez, keeps us on the edge even when our heroine finally reaches to what may be the end point of her troubled emotional journey.

Favier also draws solid performances from her main cast members. While Noée Abita is convincing in her character’s gradual loss of innocence, Jérémie Renier, a wonderful Belgian actor who has been mostly known for his frequent appearances in several acclaimed works of the Dardenne Brothers, is also believable as a loathsome person who does not mind at all committing more sexual abuse and exploitation upon his prized trainee as intoxicated more with lust and control. In case of several other supporting players, Marie Denarnaud, Muriel Combeau, and Maïra Schmitt are well-cast in their respective parts, and Combeau has a poignant moment with Abita when their characters finally come to have a little honest moment between them.

On the whole, “Slalom”, which is incidentally Favier’s first feature film, did a fairly thoughtful job of handling its very sensitive main subject, and you will certainly appreciate it more especially if you have watched recent Netflix documentary film “Athlete A” (2020), which gives a devastating account of countless sexual abuses committed upon young American gymnasts in real life. This is surely another relevant movie of the ongoing #MeToo era, and I think you should check it out someday.

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