Expect to feel a chill in the air and a chill up your spine when watching “Slalom,” a French drama opening Friday at the Roxie virtual cinema about a teenage skier and her abusive older male coach.
The familiar story merits telling and filmmaker Charlène Favier hooks and horrifies viewers in this feature debut. The movie is less a sports drama than a psychothriller and a coming-of-age tale with themes reflecting #MeToo-era concerns.
Fifteen-year-old Lyz (Noée Abita) attends a program in the French Alps that provides high-school athletes with ski instruction along with regular schooling. In charge of the site is Fred ( Jérémie Renier), a former ski champion who uses emotional abuse as a coaching method.
Early on, Fred worries us when he asks Lyz to take off her clothes — it’s OK he tells her — and establishes a tone of false security as he weighs her and measures her body fat in a manner that seems purely clinical.
His interests often involve her body, including her menstrual cycle. “Periods are beautiful. They follow the moon,” he tells her.
The picture both brightens and darkens for Lyz when Fred observes her athletic prowess and competitiveness on the frozen slopes. He senses she can be his ticket to renewed glory.
He begins bestowing attention on her. At first, Lyz, whose divorced parents aren’t around much, enjoys the fuss. But then Fred’s grooming of her takes a more sinister form.
Tightening his grip, Fred convinces school authorities and Lyz’s clueless mother (Muriel Combeau), who spends most of her time in Marseille, to let Lyz, whose academic grades have dropped, to stay at his home, which he shares with his girlfriend, Lilou (Marie Denarnaud).
There, he sexually abuses Luz, who becomes miserable. In tune with the movie’s title, all goes downhill.
Lyz’s ability to regain her independence and spirit lies with her need to realize that what happened with Fred was not her fault and that the man she admired and wanted to please has preyed on her.
Favier’s screenplay, co written with Marie Talon, contains no surprises. But the film shapes up as a powerful look at sexual abuse in the sports world and a horrifying picture of how predators operate.
The movie also succeeds as a compelling psychodrama and teen-awakening journey, for which credit goes to Favier’s down-earth storytelling and presentation of events from Lyz’s point of view.
Abita, who was 20 when the film was shot, is extraordinary. She is believable as a 15-year-old whirl of stubbornness, defiance, naivete, aloofness and uncertainty. The exhilaration, shock, and confusion she conveys with her face, often with no dialogue, make Lyz a quietly but rivetingly emotional presence.
Renier brilliantly makes Fred’s behavior despicable while giving Fred just enough humanity to make him a credible character instead of a one-note monster.
Starring: Noée Abita, Jérémie Renier, Marie Denarnaud, Muriel Combeau
Written by: Charlène Favier, Marie Talon
Directed by: Charlène Favier
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
The Syrian refugee crisis meets the western art market in “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania’s uneven but compelling (and Oscar-nominated) social satire, refugee-condition tragicomedy and love story,
The protagonist is Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni), a passionate Syrian who escapes from the Middle East by making a Faustian deal with world-famous market-savvy artist Jeffrey Godefroy (Koen De Bouw). The terms state that Jeffrey will tattoo a work of art on Sam’s back and that Sam must participate in designated activities relating to the artwork. In exchange, Sam will receive passage to Europe, where Abeer (Dea Liane), the woman he loves, now lives.
Initially, Sam welcomes the deal, which has landed him in a luxury hotel in Brussels. He rejects the argument, issued by a refugee rights group, that Jeffrey is exploiting him.
But as photographs of his tattooed skin start appearing on gift-shop items, and the artwork on his back is sold to a wealthy collector, who, in effect, now owns him, and as the public regards him less as a three-dimensional person than as a Middle East stereotype, Sam revolts.
The movie is far from flawless. The romance amounts largely to a dull triangle involving Sam, Abeer, and the diplomat husband (Saad Lostan) Abeer has acquired. Material involving Sam’s struggling mother, in Syria, is even soapier.
Still, it’s an enjoyable and engrossing movie that’s lighter-handed than Ben Hania’s rape-themed “Beauty and the Dogs” but similarly powerful as it addresses, in this case, the uneven distribution of fortune in the world and how a piece of merchandise can have more rights than a human being seeking asylum.
Monica Bellucci, playing Jeffrey’s associate, rounds out the solid primary cast.
The story was inspired by an actual artwork, which Belgian artist Wim Delvoye tattooed on a man’s back and sold.
The film screens virtually at the Smith Rafael Film Center.
The Man Who Sold His Skin
Starring: Yahya Mahayni, Koen De Bouw, Dea Liane, Monica Bellucci
Written and directed by: Kaouther Ben Hania
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes