Drawing from your own life is a skill that many artists use, and that’s particularly true for Charlène Favier. Her protagonists are reflections of herself, as is the case in her new film Slalom, the story of a 15-year-old girl named Lyz (Noèe Abita) who is abused by her ski trainer Fred (Jérémie Renier) while undergoing rigorous preparations for a hopeful career as a professional skier.
After having directed several short films (including one with Abita), Slalom marks Favier’s first feature, although she is clearly no amateur. Utilizing every element at her disposal, from the environment to the film’s color palette, Slalom is a striking film that places you into Lyz’s perspective as she struggles with the conflicting emotions of coming of age while going through this traumatic experience that she can’t escape from.
It’s a difficult film to watch in many ways, yet also one with a deep reservoir of empathy, and a demonstration that it’s possible to find your voice even when you’ve never been shown how to. With two tremendous performances from Abita and Renier at the head of the film, Favier crafts a world around Lyz where every character is approached with empathy and understanding, making the emotions that the film puts you through that much more authentic.
Favier was gracious enough to sit down with me recently to discuss her journey in making this film, what it means for her, and the many ways she uses her skills as a writer and director to allow us to experience this story as though we are Lyz ourselves. It was an enlightening, deeply touching conversation as Favier and I spoke for well over an hour, allowing me great insight into her process as a filmmaker.
Read on for my conversation with Slalom filmmaker Charlène Favier:
Mitchell Beaupre: What was the genesis of this project for you? Is this a story you’ve been wanting to tell for a long time?
Charlène Favier: Yes and no. That’s a difficult question, and really simple at the same time. The film is a little bit my own story as a teenager. I started to write it in 2014 when I was in the Fémis writing workshop. Before that I had done many short films, and they were always the stories of girls between 15 and 20 years old who were trying to find themselves. They would fall down sometimes, but it was always a story about resilience. Lyz is based on myself so that character in a way has been there in all of my films already, but the story of sexual abuse between her and her ski trainer came a bit afterwards. It was hard for me to confront this story within myself. I had been running away from it, so when I was writing at the lab in 2014 I spent like 6 months turning around the subject because I didn’t want to face it. At one point my teacher and classmates told me, “Charlène, you are writing the story about Lyz, but it’s also about sexual abuse in sports”, and I was like, “Oh my god, are you sure? Okay, I’m going to quit the writing. Bye, I’m not here anymore”. (laughing) It scared me so much that I almost quit, but then my producer helped me a lot to tackle the subject, and helped me through the writing process to do this story.
MB: The film explores that subject matter of abuse in the world of sports, and abuse in the world at large, but it centers itself on Lyz’s story and having us see everything through her perspective. Could you talk about taking that approach to the film?
CF: That was really important to me. I wanted this to be a truly sensorial experience, even in terms of Noée’s performance. As an actress she engaged all of her senses into it. I wanted for the audience to be immersed in what Lyz’s moods were, her feelings, and her body at the same time. I didn’t want the viewers to watch it with a neutral standpoint, or to judge the characters in it. I wanted for them to live it from the inside. I wanted the mise en scène of the film to have this radical nature.
MB: Noée’s performance in the film is so unique, almost primal. The two of you had worked together before on your short film Odol Gorri. Was it there where you realized she would be perfect for Lyz?
CF: I didn’t know right away, but I had this sense. My instinct told me that. We met during the short, and when you first meet Noée she’s a little wild, she tends to protect herself, and close off. It was a true meeting of the spirits because of that. We talked a lot about ourselves, we talked a lot about our lives. We shared, and we immediately felt this sisterhood where we didn’t even need to talk anymore, we just knew each other.
MB: Is it true that she lied to you about being able to ski when you cast her?
CF: (laughing) Yes! After we did Odul Gorri I asked her if she wanted to work on my feature film with me, and it would be so good to do another adventure together. She said of course, and I told her that it’s in the world of skiing and asked her if she had ever skied before. She says, “Yes, I’ve been skiing before when I was a kid with my parents all the time”. So, I’m thinking this is amazing, total serendipity and all of that. Because this is a small film it took a while for us to get the funding, but then once we got the funding we had to shoot pretty much right away. We got all of the money together, and I call Noée up and tell her that in two months we’re going to start shooting, and it’s going to be so much fun we’re going to be up in the mountains together and skiing and we can talk about the character and everything. She says, “Uh, I lied to you. I can’t ski.”
She did an incredible job, though. In the film, the ski scenes aren’t really her of course, but she still had to enter the body of a professional skier, which is a very hard thing to do. I’m an old professional skier, so I know straight away when someone is in front of me if you’re someone who has never skied or if you’re someone who skis very well. It’s in the way you carry your skis, the way you walk with your ski boots, the way you look at the mountain. So, I told Noée that we had two months, so she’s going to go up to the mountain alone with a ski coach, and she’s going to do the same training that the professional skiers do. She did it all. She was up running in the forest at 4 o’clock in the morning every morning, she learned how to take care of her skis, everything.
MB: Noée is a tremendous young actor, and opposite her you cast someone else who has been acting since he was very young: Jérémie Renier. Did you always know you wanted Jérémie for the part of Fred?
CF: I didn’t write the story with any actors in mind for the roles, but when it was time to cast it my mind straight away was thinking about Jérémie. He’s such a wonderful European actor because he acts like an American actor. American actors act with their whole bodies. They completely change their face and their body for the part. I studied theater in London, and I noticed it was the same there as well. French actors are always the same in every film. You don’t see the character, you only ever see the actor. I hate that! Jérémie is always changing in every film, you never recognize him because he is always the character. I reached out to him for the part, and he was very interested. He knew the role would be really complex, and he liked that. The relationship between Noée and Jérémie and me was so strong, we are like brother and sister. We are all self-taught people who landed in this profession through different paths. All three of us have this wild side, we are very ambitious, authentic, spontaneous, and funny, but we take things seriously. There is a sort of magic that developed between the three of us as we all came together around this script.
MB: A lot of movies would portray Fred as a one-dimensional monster, but your film shows him as a complex, multi-dimensional human being. He does horrible things, but he’s also charming, he feels guilt, he can be caring. How did you and Jérémie approach conveying the humanity of the character?
CF: Jérémie and I talked about this a lot. I had written the ambivalence of the character already in the script, but we worked hard on this because it is a difficult thing to pull off. It’s hard when you’re creating a character who will say that something is right, and then do the exact opposite. He is kind, and yet guilty at the same time. Human beings are so complex, there are so many more layers than we are exposed to, so in this situation where everyone is so tight it all becomes intertwined in a way that is almost indescribable. It was so important for me to elicit all of these layers and make sure they were coming across.
MB: The first scene of assault is one that I think encapsulates the dimensionality of the movie incredibly well. They’re on this joy ride at night and it starts off romantic, but then he attacks her and it quickly becomes disturbing and traumatic. How did you approach this scene and the way that it shifts tonally?
CF: The key is that the whole scene is narrated from Lyz’s point of view. It’s the first time she’s driving, so she’s having so much fun, she’s taking some risks, and she’s sitting there with Fred who she feels protected by. At the same time, there’s this adult component where she feels in control which is a new feeling for her, and then all of a sudden Fred jumps on her. She doesn’t even have time to realize what’s coming onto her. It’s very shocking and very overwhelming, so I needed this break in the scene to be a radical one. We cut out the music, that mood shifts completely, we focus on her hand on the window, Lyz goes completely silent. She is so overwhelmed, she doesn’t know what happened to her, and she doesn’t know how to feel about it. Which is also what I hope the viewer feels in the moment.
MB: Something that plays into the confusion for Lyz is this idea that she speaks of in the film that Fred is the first person who has ever believed in her. How does that impact how she sees him and how this dynamic is developed in the film?
CF: He’s really the first person in her life to make her discover the adult world. Her parents have both kind of left her, she has this lack of psychological support from anyone. Actually, this is often the case in competitive sport at a really high level. Kids become professional athletes around 14 to 16, so they’re very young, and all of a sudden they’re on their own and their coach becomes everything to them. Their coach is a doctor, a parent, sometimes their boyfriend or girlfriend. The power that coaches end up having is a big issue in athletic clubs or athletic institutions. In terms of the way that the athletic world is set up, there aren’t any barriers or limits to the role that a coach has on a kid’s life.
At the same time, Lyz has the profile of an abandoned child. She doesn’t have a lot of people who see her, or encourage her, and then Fred shows her that she exists in his eyes. This happens to a lot of victims of abuse, they tend to be people who have felt abandoned and therefore attach themselves to the first person who pays them attention. She doesn’t know what love is, what sex is, so the first person who shows her this kind of attention, she thinks that this is love. All of these things are coming into play and mixing with each other, so it then becomes a kind of horror story.
MB: The movie does a great job of mapping out how a situation like this can happen, as we see characters like Lyz’s mother or Fred’s girlfriend who can tell that something is not quite right, yet they don’t do anything. We don’t feel judgement towards them though, because you’re approaching every character in the film with empathy.
CF: Exactly, I didn’t want to judge any character in my film. That’s very important because Lyz doesn’t judge anyone, and we are in her point of view, so that was really my dogma, my mise en scène. Humans are like that. Sometimes they are bad, sometimes they are good, and we have to deal with that. I didn’t want to tell a story about the bad people and the good people, I wanted to show that we are all sometimes both good and bad. What I wanted for people to realize is that this can happen to anyone. Actually, after some screenings of the movie I’ve had men come up to me and kind of whisper to me that they were ashamed because Fred could have been them at some point. I think this film gave me a little toolbox that I had in the trunk of my car that I didn’t know was back there, but now I do and it allows me to understand what I can do and what I can’t. I think that’s important to know, that this could have happened to anyone.
MB: You’ve spoken about how the movie comes from a very personal place for you. Did you find something therapeutic in the process of making the film, and seeing the response to it?
CF: It really was like therapy for me to do this film. It took me almost five years from the writing to the end of editing, and I changed a lot of myself through that. I think there was a benefit for me to make the film and feel the difference in my life to tell this story. I found that when I wrote this film I was able to understand myself, what I lived. I was trying to understand everything, and I would think that if I was writing this because I’m trying to understand myself then probably there are other people out there who will feel understood by the film as well. The movie was delayed because of COVID, but we’ve had some premieres and festival screenings, and critics who have seen the film, and the response has been incredibly encouraging.
In fact, many sports federations and clubs like the Marseille football club are using the film to talk about the problem of sexual abuse in sports, and so are the ski federation and the bicycle federation here. It was crazy because I was really afraid to tell this story, I didn’t know how people would respond to it, and now people are using it as a tool to fight against these issues that the film is bringing up. I think the film is coming out at the perfect time because these themes are finally being discussed in the world, so now people are analyzing what is going on to try and understand. We really get down to the core of things in the film so we can understand why Lyz doesn’t say no right away, why she feels she’s in love, why she doesn’t know how to set boundaries.
MB: The movie has a very powerful ending, focused on Lyz finding the strength to say one word: “no”. A lot of movies would go on for a few scenes longer to show that her life was suddenly better, but you’re really making a statement by ending it where you do. Could you talk about the importance of ending the film at that specific moment?
CF: That “no” was everything to me, because for me it took me a long time to learn to say no. That’s probably because I had been a bit abandoned, and had this fear of not being loved, so then there’s this fear that stops you from saying no because you’re afraid you’ll be alone forever. To learn how to say no is so important to help you finally find your real identity. You say, “No. I am here. Here I am.”, and that’s really simple, but it’s really hard. We don’t talk about that, we don’t learn about that so much. I didn’t want to go into the sequences after that because I don’t want to pretend like things are going to be easy for Lyz all of a sudden. If you take my life, I realized all of those things at 30 years old, so it took me 15 years to get there. I did great stuff, I was a really enthusiastic girl and everything, but I had a really dark side in me for a long time. If I went back and had scenes with her and Justine dancing and skiing and being free it wouldn’t feel true. I wanted the audience to experience what she lived and just feel how hard it is to say “no”. That’s already a lot.
MB: After she says the word, you hold on her for a bit and she has this deep exhale of breath. Was that a kind of moment of catharsis for both the character and for you?
CF: It’s funny, that day of shooting was a disaster. We were so exhausted when we shot this film. We did it in five weeks with a million euros, which is very small, and we were about three weeks into shooting, so we still had a while to go but we were already fucked up, just so dead. We knew we were doing something really important, though. I asked Noée there to reconnect with the air, with the atmosphere, because for all of the film Lyz is not connected with herself and with nature. She’s not connected with anything other than these bad feelings, and now she has to trust that she can be herself again.
MB: The environment goes through its own arc in the film, where it begins with the mountains feeling very beautiful and free, and slowly over time they become more oppressive. Did you want to connect everything around Lyz to what was going on inside of her?
CF: The mountain was very important to me. I wanted to use it as a decor, but I also wanted it to mirror Lyz’s state of being. I wanted for her to look at the mountain every time she needed to find an answer. I wanted to really connect the movie to this spiritual aspect. I don’t like naturalistic film, where it’s too much like a documentary. I really like to go for aestheticism and connect the film to the magic of being a teenage kid where you connect so many things in the world to yourself, like you see a plant and think it’s a sign of something or has a certain energy. I worked a lot with the artistic direction in the film to utilize the colors, where at the beginning of the film it’s quite sunny and Lyz is wearing a lot of pink, then slowly the more you go along the more we bring in the darkness and the red colors. It’s a subliminal message to manipulate the subconscious mind of the viewer to an extent.
MB: This is your first feature film, and it’s a really amazing piece of work. What’s coming up next for you?
CF: I’m working on many, many, many projects. Before this film I was nobody, I was a small woman trying to make a film, and now I’ve been given the card, the cinema green card. Now I know I’m going to make films, that’s going to be my real job, and people are now seeing me as a director. In France it’s really hard to enter this world, it’s a very privileged industry and you have to prove yourself, but now I’ve proven it so many projects are coming to me and people want to work with me. I’m working for Netflix and for different series for TV, but my next project is going to be another film for cinema. It’s the story of a woman named Oksana Shachko who founded the FEMEN movement. The movement is this group of Ukrainian women who fight against injustice against women, but also in general, by showing their breasts in public with messages across them. They have flowers across their heads, and they use their body with this warrior attitude to convey these strong messages. Oksana was the founder of the movement who had come to France in 2012 as a refugee and died by suicide in 2018. She was an artist, a painter, and a heroine. It’s going to be a movie about a strong woman who fought injustice and devoted her life to promoting freedom for others, and fighting social injustice as a whole.
Slalom is playing now in select theaters and streaming via Kino Marquee
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]