Thursday 11 February 2021

Downhill, fast: "Slalom"

Are we getting more movies in lockdown about bodies in motion, or is it that our own bodies are experiencing such little motion that even minor movements come to seem like grand cinematic gestures? If the dancers in this week's
If It Were Love made you feel shamefully passive, you should probably steer clear of Charlène Favier's Slalom, which opens with a blur of aspirant young Alberto Tombas on the slopes of a ski academy, being trained to go through the motions: left, right, left, right. (It's boot camp in snowshoes.) What happens when instructors and students are tempted off-piste? Favier locates one such wayward one in 15-year-old Lyz (Noée Abita, insouciant heroine of Lea Mysius' 2017 film Ava). Though her body counts among the smallest of her fellow skiers, it falls subject to the most control. Lyz is stripped, prodded with calipers and told to tack on muscle mass ("You're behind the others") by her brusque coach Fred (Jérémie Renier); back at her chalet, she hooks herself up to a machine that electronically palpates what muscle she does have. Maybe it's the altitude, but everything at the top of this mountain feels a little more life-and-death: Lyz is passing through an X Games version of the cookie-cutter society asks its teenagers - and teenage girls in particular - to negotiate. That Fred is a reckless guide in this becomes apparent when we see him and Lyz dangling their legs out of a cable car suspended over the void; later, we see him taking his charge for a spin on an icepatch. He's an adrenalin junkie, too, which may explain why one of the pair's training sessions ends with him kissing his 15-year-old charge, and putting her hands on his crotch. Yikes.

At which point, an unusually rocky coming-of-age picture reshapes into something more openly provocative: a text positioning itself alongside the Netflix doc Athlete A and the thousand-and-one magazine articles documenting the sorry ins-and-outs of the Weinstein affair. Immediately, we're set to wondering whether this heinous error of judgement forms part of a wider pattern of abuse, yet Favier - in the film's riskiest tactic - starts blurring the lines. It's an unexpected swerve, to say the least, when Fred tenderly wipes Lyz's hands clean in the immediate wake of their initial collision, and then takes her out to dinner as though this were all part of a normal date; he does a very bad thing in a gentlemanly fashion, and it's left to the viewer to decide whether that makes his powergrab any better or worse. The boyish Renier is not an obvious monster, in any event, and arguably just the type on which an impressionable 15-year-old with no visible father might develop a crush, especially after glimpsing him in the shower, as Lyz does. The unusual closeness between coach and athlete is only exacerbated here by the thinness of the air and the helter-skelter speed everybody's moving at: we're just recovering from this transgression when one of Lyz's female rivals makes a move on her in the locker room. Everyone on screen is antsy, agitated, subject to odd impulses, as if they'd left that palpation device on under their ski suits. When Fred offers to move Lyz into the chalet he shares with his girlfriend, the resort's tutor Lilou (Marie Denarnaud), it's another jerky move, and yet perhaps more of the control he'd previously exerted over his charge's physical form: if not the thinking of an out-and-out predator, then certainly that of someone who knows he's made a terrible, career-ending mistake, and is taking steps to ensure it never gets out.

Horrendous - squirm-inducing - as this developing relationship is, in other words, it has an underpinning internal logic, bolstered by Favier's necessarily close and sensitive work with her leads (and with Abita in particular, steered through what must have been an especially tricky role to play, where Mysius was content to marvel at her). We see how this adult and this child get into this mess, and there's no mistaking what a mess it is. Yet Favier's complicating tactics don't begin and end with her Humbert-and-Lolita-ish central characters: Lilou should by default be a sympathetic presence, yet Denarnaud goes hell-for-leather in one pivotal scene, appearing barely less aggressive than Fred in her attempts to shake the truth from Lyz and thereby determine what's gone on between her chaletmates. For much of the film, poor Lyz appears to be falling and hitting every hard and jagged rock on this mountain; there's never any soft landing. Dramatic achievement though that is - this experience is far more bracing and bruising than anything the original Lolita went through - it wouldn't surprise me if some viewers were frustrated or appalled by Favier's refusal to carve clear-cut lines in the snow, as I'm sure some readers were upon the publication of Nabokov's most notorious novel. (You can only wonder what the response would be if a male writer-director had put their name to this story in 2021.) Successful navigation of this course may depend on an acceptance that people are often messy and complicated, and sometimes wilfully, criminally stupid. This is not a film that intends to do your daily step count for you - indeed, there are sequences that will make you want to curl up in a ball. But - boy - is your moral compass in for a workout.

Slalom streams from tomorrow via Curzon Home Cinema.

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