Rendezvous with French Cinema: Slalom and Summer of ’85

A teenage ski prodigy navigates sexual abuse in Chàrlene Favier’s zeitgeist drama Slalom, and François Ozon returns to his earlier oevre in Summer of ’85. Also seen at the Philadelphia and Seattle International Film Festival.

Prepare to be repulsed by Slalom. I came into it naked and unprepared for the levels of insidiousness that the character played by Jérémie Renier’s ski instructor character Fred would impose on his protege Lyz (a compelling, but sometimes maddening Noée Abita). From the word go we are drawn into Lyz’s harrowing story in which she, a skier with the potential to win big, becomes the unhealthy target of Fred’s obsessive training style which borders on the transgressive and would label him a criminal in the US (if reported). From the moment he lays his eyes on Lyz, her fate is set. Vulnerable, her isolation from her never-there mother (Muriel Combeau) makes her an easy target to mold to his standards of what he deems perfect. A predator who operates so casually on his instinct, perhaps because he’s been operating freely without any supervision, he treats Lyz like cattle, ordering her to undress in order to get her measurements. Lyz, strangely, acquiesces, perhaps because she hasn’t realized how love-starved she is. That we get to see progressive acts of transgression in which Fred eliminates the natural and logical boundaries between himself and Lyz in order to get her under his total control becomes almost unbearable to watch. This is an ugly movie to watch. It is also doubly important not to shy away from it. Too many men (and shockingly, women) in power have got away with these acts of degradation with the excuse of being a harsh teacher. Favier displays it all on camera, shot in shades of mostly chiaroscuro. We can only look and be outraged. A ferocious debut. [B+]

François Ozon has, for the better part of the past decade, been moving away from his early queer movies which were a bit lighter and experimental in tone and embracing a darker side. I think the moment that his cinema changed was in 2000 when he released Sous le sable (Under the Sand) and began to create narratives ripe with queer sensibilities but without being necessarily gay or lesbian, the exception to that trend being 8 Femmes (8 Women).

Summer of ’85 is based on the YA novel Dance on my Grave by Aidan Chambers. Summer tells the story of 16-year-old Alexis Robin (Felix Lefebvre), who’s on the verge of being arrested for being a suspect in the death of his 18-year-old friend David Gorman (Benjamin Voisin). Much of the movie transpires in extended flashback sequences as Alexis starts to tell his story which proceeds to let us in on how he met David, and what exactly happened between the two.

Much of Summer of ’85 moves rather rapidly, almost as if Ozon himself were trying to gloss over the rough pages and let us in only on the meat of the situation rather than trying to let the situation itself breathe on its own. That in many ways is fine — the chemistry between Lefebvre and Voisin practically leaps off the screen. The problem lies in that while their progressive evolution from simply friends to something more intimate is rife with suspense and erotic tension, once the inevitable happens, the movie veers into a forced situation involving a female British tourist. That in itself takes the story into unexpected terrain, and we are left with a somewhat unsatisfying coming of age with an ending so tacked on it almost looks like it could belong in another movie.

On the plus side, Summer of ’85 is a gorgeous view — from the scenery to its two young male leads who are polar opposites but fit together like a glove to a hand. Voisin resembles a young Nicolas Cage at the start of his career with his deep-set, soulful eyes and swagger. Lefebvre is more internal, and because he has the more difficult part, he has to evolve from an insecure, dependent young man to someone who could effectively be on his own and find the right guy. Ozon brings in frequent collaborators Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Melvin Poupaud in supporting parts — she as David’s clueless mother; he as Alexis’ teacher. [C+]

Slalom is available to stream on virtual cinema. Summer of ’85 will have its US release on June 18, 2021.

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