Lyz Lopez started skiing when she was 4. Who knows what first drew her to the sport, but 11 years on the slopes have shaped Lyz the prodigy into Lyz the competitor. She’s 15 now, and with proper instruction, she could be the best in France, maybe even the world. The Olympics are right around the corner, and coach Fred believes Lyz could medal. All Lyz has to do is trust him.
Trust him she does — even when he tells her to strip down for a weigh-in. He pinches her stomach and tells her to lose weight. Also, bulk up: He asks for two additional pounds of muscle and tosses her a tub of protein powder the size of a stockpot. And how are your periods? Lyz stammers. “It’s important for training,” he says. She’s caught off guard, but his questions and comments are direct, going hand-in-hand with his overall demeanor. Sticky notes dot Lyz’s hotel room with directions and reminders. Who knows if the other skiers under Fred’s tutelage live in a similar situation, but we know he’s got his eye on Lyz and where that could lead.
As we’ve seen in other sports, the Olympics attract the very young and the very impressionable. It’s not hard to manipulate a teen living in a sports bubble; even easier to take advantage of the parent who dreams of their kid standing on a podium while sponsorship offers roll in. When and why Lyz’s parent’s split up remains a mystery, but with Dad absent and Mom working in Marseilles, Lyz will have to go it alone. That’s when Fred offers to take her in: She’s something special, he tells Lyz’s mother.
You can probably guess where all of this is heading, and you’re right, but the power of French filmmaker Charlène Favier’s debut drama, Slalom, derives not from the dread of what’s-to-come, but from the understanding of how it happens. Jérémie Renier plays the 30-something former skier turned trainer with quiet depravity. A rudimentary health check becomes a violation of privacy; a preparatory rubdown gives way to groping; a post-workout massage transgresses whatever boundaries remain.
Favier and cinematographer Yann Maritaud open these scenes with tight close-ups and foreboding pools of deep blacks and garish reds. Then the lighting and image shift into something colder, sicklier, uglier. Actress Noée Abita traces a similar path in her performance — passivity giving way to absence. It’s as if she is forcing herself outside her body.
Abita excels in these scenes and in the quotidian moments of a 15-year-old trying to figure out the world and her place in it. She’s in practically every frame of Slalom, yet this is not her movie, and when it comes time for the credits, Favier places Abita’s name right next to Renier’s. Lyz may be free of Fred physically, but his shadow will loom over her for years to come.