Chosen as part of the official Cannes selection for 2020, Charlène Favier has delivered a knockout first feature with Slalom, the story of a teenage girl struggling under the weight of pressure from all sides, including from her sexually abusive ski instructor. After spending the past decade making fascinating short films, Favier demonstrates that she is going to be one to watch moving forward, as her film arrives fully-formed without any of the rough edges that sometimes greet a first feature. Her command over every aspect of the film is astonishing, as she has collaborated with her crew to create a picture that is involving at a core level.
There are many routes where a story of such difficult subject matter could have taken a wrong turn, and Favier avoids any of the usual pitfalls. Slalom never once hides from the true depths of this sort of abuse on a young girl. Without veering into exploitation, the film confronts the reality of the situation with a startling honesty. The filmmaker is helped along in that journey by two remarkable performances from her leads. Noée Abita, as 15-year-old Lyz, brings a primal instinct to her role that touches on the raw nerve that any teenager exists as within a world that they’re only starting to understand, particularly if they are in the midst of an extended traumatic environment. As Lyz’s instructor Fred, Jérémie Renier continues to demonstrate why he’s one of the best actors we have working today, utterly unafraid of taking on a character most actors wouldn’t go anywhere near.
Favier has cast two actors entirely in tune with her approach, which is to create full-dimensional human beings out of characters who could often be made into cardboard figures. From her script outward, the filmmaker puts empathy at the forefront of this story, as we see each character for their flaws and their positive qualities. Even Fred, disturbingly, is at first a charming, inviting man who makes Lyz feel as though she’s being seen for the first time. Coming from a home with an absent father and a neglectful, self-centered mother, Lyz is an easy target for Fred’s violent affections, yet Slalom does the work to make us understand that this isn’t a simple case of man as monster and young girl as unrealistically vulnerable object of desire. We believe and understand why Lyz thinks she’s in love with him, as we are seeing the world through her eyes.
As we see the story develop, we understand how this is a situation that could happen to anyone. Without ever becoming too didactic or going the route of a message movie on the evils of the sports world, Favier illustrates through Lyz’s experience how easily these events could happen in the world we’re living in today. Drawing from her personal experience, Favier knows the world of professional sports and the alarming amount of control and freedom that a coach has on their athletes’ lives, just as she knows the ways in which men are given leniency that can allow them to slip into the kind of abusive behaviors that Fred does. It’s due to this authentic approach to the material that the filmmaker is able to make Slalomas deeply impactful as it ultimately is. The film is difficult to watch, it gets under your skin, and it wouldn’t have the lasting resonance that it does if it weren’t for the ways in which Favier allows us to see all of these characters as real human beings.
While her film is rooted in its characters, Slalom also goes the extra mile in using the elements and techniques specific to cinema to make this an all-encompassing experience. Set in the French Alps, Favier uses the mountains around the characters to illustrate the arc of Lyz’s headspace over the course of the film. At first, Lyz sees these snow-covered peaks as freeing and beautiful, yet slowly they become more and more oppressive until they are suffocating. Favier plays with the color palette in fascinating ways, transitioning from the bright whites and blues of the film’s early stages to unnerving, invading reds by the time we reach the final act, a subliminal effect that informs us of how the mood is shifting in Lyz’s headspace.
Every detail of Slalom is keyed to keep us in Lyz’s perspective, to understand her from the inside out. There’s an experiential approach to the film where we as the audience feel it more than Favier ever needs to dictate to us what is happening in any given moment. With few words, Abita’s performance channels the inner turmoil of this young girl, oscillating dramatically between her perceived love for Fred and the confusion of what is happening to her while her perception of the world is crumbling. Her journey builds to an eye-opening ending, a genius stroke that closes the picture off at exactly the right moment. Most films would go on for a few scenes longer, giving the audience a false sense of where Lyz’s life would be after we cut to black. Favier is a far more intelligent filmmaker than that, and she knows that the core of Lyz’s arc in the film is contained in one simple word that it takes the entire film for her to find the strength to say. In that ending alone, we see that Favier is a force to be reckoned with as a filmmaker, and that her first feature is only the beginning of the excellence that she is sure to deliver.