The bigger they are, the harder they fall. It’s true of Harvey Weinstein, who, at the time of his professional demise, was one half of the infamous film studio The Weinstein Company, a so-called mini-major that often went toe-to-toe with the Big Five at both year-end award shows and the box office. A household name of sorts among avid moviegoers since his time at Miramax in the late ’80s all the way through to his downfall in October 2017, Weinstein’s history of sexual abuse could be traced through his once-reputable career, dating back to the ’70s. This adage is also an accurate description of Larry Nassar’s career trajectory, which saw him go from the national-team doctor for USA Gymnastics to a convicted felon with at least 265 sexual assault claims against him. Just two of the many serial abusers at the top of innumerable power structures around the globe, Weinstein and Nassar prove that such predators can eventually be brought to justice. Just because they can doesn’t always mean they will, however — especially when the abusers aren’t big enough to fall hard, as in Charlène Favier’s directorial debut, Slalom.
Leaving behind her parents to attend a prestigious ski school wasn’t an easy choice for 15-year-old Lyz Lopez (Noée Abita), even if her relationship with her mother (Muriel Combeau) is strained and communication with her absent father is practically nonexistent. Still, it was the right decision — or at least that’s what everyone insists. The opportunity to train under a former champion like Fred (Jérémie Renier) is too great to pass up, no matter how tough his methods might be. Fred is hard on all his students, but it seems like he’s exceptionally cruel to Lyz: He pushes her further, trains her longer, and holds her to higher standards than the rest, then tears her down when she can’t live up to his impossible expectations. Nevertheless, she returns to practice each morning, ready to face Fred and his rigorous methods once more. (He is an ex-champ, after all. He must know best, right?)
After a passive-aggressive exchange with her friend Justine (Maïra Schmitt) in which Lyz’s integrity is brought into question, Fred’s unyielding approach to coaching no longer fazes her — she’s in it to win now, regardless of how tough the training gets. Lyz begins to win competition after competition, and Fred immediately takes notice. The better she does, the closer they become, drawing judgmental glares from her peers and Fred’s partner (Marie Denarnaud) alike. It doesn’t bother either one of them, just as long as he sticks to his meticulous routine and she keeps up the good work. However, this all changes after one particularly long day of practicing when Fred crosses a line and forces Lyz into a sexual act that she did not and cannot consent to at her young age. It’s a dark, graphic encounter that — combined with the physical and emotional strain she is already facing — could be the straw that breaks Lyz’s back.
It feels odd to imply that harrowing stories of abuse are somehow a common or familiar theme these days, but it’s indeed something that has been explored in several high-profile works lately. Recent breakout hits like Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman (2020), Kitty Green’s The Assistant (2019), and Jennifer Fox’s The Tale (2018) are some of the bigger titles from the past few years to explore monstrous abusers and their misuse of their power and positions. These three are immediate standouts because they each add their own unique spin to stories of sexual abuse, but the sheer number of these kinds of narratives that have been released since the start of the #MeToo movement is notable. This is not to suggest that Slalom is trite or overplayed, however — Favier’s film is the furthest thing from banal. Slalom explores very real, very visceral sexual trauma, but it takes a novel approach, exploring the subject by embracing sports-movie tropes.
Numerous by-the-book teen sports dramas feature the underdog in the starring role, the best friend pursuing the same path, the one-note peers who express their jealousy through snide remarks, the rocky relationships with uninvolved parents, the no-nonsense coach who eventually softens with time, and the romantic interest who threatens to derail everything by distracting from the training process. Slalom is no exception. Where Favier’s film diverges from the tropes is with the coach and the romantic interest, which she combines in the person of Coach Fred. As such, the romantic-interest trope is effectively turned on its head by transforming it from conventional to criminal. Lyz is only 15 years old, making Fred’s actions both inappropriate and inexcusable. Renier — who some may recognize from Ira Sachs’ Frankie (2019), Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges (2008), or Joe Wright’s Atonement (2007) — is perfectly cast here, appearing both menacing and manipulative against Abita’s effortlessly sympathetic and convincing performance.
Above all else, it’s Favier’s formal control that makes Slalom a standout — even in moments when the story strays as it descends down its winding and icy course, the distinct restraint demonstrated in the film’s direction keeps the viewer invested in Lyz’s story. Something similar is on display in The Assistant, where a cold, impersonal decorum underlines the helplessness of the lead and her situation, but Slalom benefits from applying this technique to a locale that is literally frigid. It works extraordinarily well, and it helps Favier and her two main actors do a lot with what would traditionally be seen as a little: a small budget, an extremely difficult subject, and an unfortunately familiar storyline. Its target is decidedly more Nassar than Weinstein, but the conviction is the same: There are power-hungry, abusive sociopaths in leadership positions both eminent and petty, and if there’s such thing as “too big to fail,” then there must also be “too small to fail.”
Slalom is now available to rent via virtual cinemas from Kino Marquee. Purchase a ticket between April 9 - 22 and the proceeds will help support the Webster University Film Series.