You’re almost falling. Always on the edge. But there’s pleasure to be had from that position, tells Fred (Jérémie Renier) to his charge Lyz Lopez (Noée Abita). He is a brutally efficient skiing coach at a hugely resourced training centre, and she is his 15 year old student, and an almost certain future Olympian. For months, under his tutelage, Lyz has transformed herself from an unfocused, mercurial talent into something heculean; relentlessly dogged, determined to become a champion. Lyz is neglected by her mother, living alone during her training. Fred is her confidante, her mentor, and when their partnership becomes too close and too uncomfortable for the power imbalance between them, he becomes her abuser.
Sport hasn’t really had as powerful a MeToo or TimesUp movement as the screen industry has, nor has it been depicted in a feature quite like this. Damning, harrowing, and utterly complex as we are locked into Lyz’s developing mind and shell-shocked perspective. One that watches, unblinking, as a relationship of intense, championship-minded mentorship is rewritten in one unforgivable fell swoop as grooming and abuse.
Slalom, Charlène Favier’s endlessly horrifying feature fiction debut after a series of acclaimed shorts (Free Fall, Odol Gorri), opens as a supremely confident sports drama; on rails as if it were Lyz, pummelling down known, well-practiced slopes. We witness as she sacrifices more and more of herself in pursuit of becoming the best. Her mind and her body are cut down to their most athletic. Fred exerts his control on both fronts, berating her verbally as encouragement and feeling her body; modifying her diet to make her leaner, treating her injuries. When she wins, and celebrates with Fred and her peers, she feels weightless. When the sexual abuse starts, it feels like an avalanche engulfing her, with the only way to go being down, full speed, hoping to outrun it. I recall one innocuous cutaway that encapsulates the mentor-student grooming relationship between Lyz and Fred, and by extension the thematic core of Slalom, dome and all. A snow globe—inside, two wolves. They hide their teeth, but we know what they are: hungry, predatory. The cub stares forward through the plastic, hungry to move forward, to escape; the adult hangs over the cub, hungrier, far more dangerous in its intent. All trapped under pressure and falling snow.
To call Slalom dark, cold, punishing is almost a disservice. Not because it’s untrue, but because it’s too easy. Its long nights and frigid location add to the atmosphere of isolation and dissociation; the thrilling slalom sequences feel as relentless as Lyz’s abuse. But Favier is in total control of the film for it to feel unfeeling, or impossible to watch. Her treatment of such bleak material is as honest and uneasy as it should be. As the balance of power between Fred and Lyz shifts, there isn’t a relative release from the cycle of abuse: it merely reconfigures, mutates into something even more complex. There may be no defining escape or recovery, but for Lyz, catharsis may just come from the realisation that there may just be the possibility for both.
Renier and in particular Abita deliver precision performances, expressing difficult characterisation with incredible nuance and naturalism. The score, by the trio Alexandre Lier, Sylvain Ohrel and Nicolas Weil, is exhilarating when paired with the action, and Favier’s direction is confident beyond what should be expected of a debut. However, the pinnacle of Slalom is found in Yann Maritaud’s impeccable cinematography.
Slalom was shot with Alexa Mini, Panavision B-Series lenses—repurposed, vintage anamorphics. I have seen this set-up used on numerous other projects, yet none have made quite the same use of light and shape as Slalom with its meticulous lighting and whirring blizzards. (The former point is understandable—a browse through Maritaud’s credits shows a wealth of experience in the lighting and electrical department). The light build of the Alexa Mini allowed for scene-to-scene consistency; the unique characteristics of camera and lenses present in both the high octant skiing scenes and the quiet, close and personal dramatic scenes. The use of red hues, long since iconic in cinema as a sign of danger, is brought to bracing new life. The reds seep into the cooler environments creating at times suffocating images, at other times abstract and staggering contrasts. The image used for the poster sees Lyz and Fred bathed in red and shadow with the snow-locked mountains and pale blue sky behind in a window. It’s instantly memorable. And little needs to be said of the skiing scenes: breathtaking.
To me, Maritaud’s work recalls Jamie D. Ramsey’s work on last years Moffie. Both are modestly budgeted and punishingly dark films lifted by a gorgeous and wholly individual visual identity. Moffie is a biographical tale of a gay soldier conscripted to the South African Defence Force during the height of Apartheid, where military training was also political, teaching the white soldiers of their institutionalised supremacy; where anything different, was weak, was to be eradicated. Heavy stuff, of course. Yet Ramsey’s camera, locked in 1.37:1 aspect ratio, heightens everything it captures. Scenes involving the military are thematically bleached white, dotted with khaki. In moments characters can be alone and breathe, the colours become stronger; saturated sunsets, the purple glow of neon stars, a vast azure sea.
In a gutting flashback, told in a subtle, woozy one-take, we see a child dragged around a holiday camp, punished, leered at and accosted at every turn. When things get heavy, the cinematography leans in. When there is release, it breathes, and captures beauty. That Slalom, released within a year of Moffie, achieves all the same things emotionally with vastly different methods and execution, is an incredible thing. For my money, they’re the two best shot films in years.
My two favourite images from both films even parallel each other neatly: Ramsey shows us soldier Nicholas (Kai Luke Brümmer) floating in a copper-dirt lake; Maritaud presents Lyz’s point of view in a rare moment of peace, watching sodium street lamps bloom through a rain and snow patterned window. Much like how Favier gives an honest and quietly hopeful end to Slalom, Maritaud ensures that even at its darkest, Slalom is a beauty to behold with every single composition.