Affection or attention can easily be misconstrued as representing love, especially to those who are seemingly lacking these basic fundamentals. This can be seen for Lyz (Noée Abita), a fifteen year old skiing protégé undergoing an intensive training program in the French Alps, far away from her mother, her school and home. Fred (Jérémie Renier), her strict trainer and ex-champion far from his prime, becomes fixated on her as he uncovers her potential on the lead up to the world championship. Slalom takes you on a beautiful and harrowing journey, following Lyz navigating adolescence away from home and without reliable guidance from those around her. It is a quiet masterpiece that establishes itself strongly with very little, and makes for a nail-biting watch.

A held frame of a calm, snowy setting elevated by the gushing winds creates a sense of a looming threat, yet when repeated in the film’s final moments it becomes an image of comfort, freedom and serenity. Lyz has overcome the battles forced upon her by the film’s climax, with the championship and her complicated relations with Fred. Fred is a strict, cold man whose standoffish demeanour may be partly to blame for Lyz’s and other young women’s infatuation with him. In a shocking moment early on in the piece you are made to watch a painful weighing scene, Fred observing and clamping Lyz’s body fat as though she is a piece of meat, imperfect, not yet ripe for participation in such a high class tournament. The borders between professionalism and festishism begin to blur.

There is an unnerving conflict between the expectation thrusted upon Lyz to be strongly motivated and independent and the patriotism surrounding her, the lack of agency she has over her body and how to express herself. There are post-it notes all over the accommodation, instructing residents what to do, yet Lyz’s Mum is almost entirely absent. Slalom portrays the sheer amount of pressure placed upon young athletes in a poetic way, borderline romanticising it, as everything is presented from Lyz’s perspective. This bubble is popped, and rightly so, but fine storytelling skills are at work to construct this internal conflict of Lyz’s, highlighting how issues of abuse are never black and white. They can be comforting, intoxicating, affirming to those who know little else. How is she expected to fully comprehend the damaging effects of a relationship that resembles one of affection?

Lyz is a truly magnetic protagonist, a prime example of excellently constructed portrayal of thinking women on screen. It is clear that she has been conditioned to express herself more-so through her actions and physicality than verbally, and this is seemingly half the battle for Lyz as the relationships around her grow darker and darker. This, in addition to her lack of wholehearted understanding of the difference between manipulative behavior and affection, makes observing her experience all the more upsetting. This is not to say that she is a passive character, though. Lyz has attitude, and Abita’s performance shines through, to the extent that she grossly overshadows her supporting cast, her friend Justine (Maïra Schmitt) and Max (Axel Auriant) begin to feel like puzzle pieces in comparison. Renier’s performance is strong and layered, a believable sleazy and entitled man, which could be likened to Michael Fassbender’s performance in Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank.

Slalom succeeds greatly into tapping into how women are socialised into believing they must alter themselves from a young age, and that the ownership of their bodies belonging to men. Because Fred represents Lyz, and trains her up, he is under the impression that she is his completely, for his praise and his pleasure. He barely takes her perspective into consideration, when in actuality she is the one benefiting him. The power play is rich and uncomfortable at times but leaves you with a saddening realisation that these stories are often not far from reality for people in these industries, vulnerable to influence of those with authority over them.

Charlene Favier’s dramatic feature debut Slalom is a gut-wrenching piece that will leave you feeling uneasy yet wholeheartedly satisfied. It is primarily a story exploring the abusive behaviours some immoral people can project unto young women and secondarily, a story of a champion in training being pushed to their limits in all ways imaginable. Its approach to presenting such a damaging dynamic is both hard-hitting and delicate, and affirms Favier as a director to watch.

Rating: ★★★

Slalom is available on Curzon Home Cinema.