Chalet Girl: skiing in the movies

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The new film Chalet Girl is big on the romance of life on the slopes. But as Stephen Wood reveals, it's a long way from the reality of a modern ski resort

The cinema hasn't done skiing many favours. The films made in the 1920s by German producer Dr Arnold Fanck – culminating in White Ecstasy starring Leni Riefenstahl in 1931, must have put bums on seats and boots on skis – and Sun Valley Serenade (1941) was popular enough to have filled some rooms at the Sun Valley Lodge, where the film is shown in 24-hour rotation on in-room TVs. But apart from Downhill Racer – a proper film with a proper director (Michael Ritchie) and stars (Robert Redford, Gene Hackman) made in 1969 – nothing on the big screen has given skiing cause to celebrate. On the contrary, things have been going downhill since 1969.

Take Hot Dog, made in Squaw Valley, California, and released in 1984. It starred former Playboy Playmate Shannon Tweed, which indicates where the film-makers were looking for an audience, namely among skiers who were adolescent, male and desperate. I remember particularly one sequence in which a couple checking into a ski lodge were greeted by a receptionist who wore nothing but a towel – and that was on her head.

It was such scenes that made Squaw Valley worry whether the movie (I use the term to distinguish fictional entertainment from the specialist, ski-action films made by Warren Miller and others) gave the resort the right sort of image. Certainly, when I was looking for a DVD of Hot Dog three years ago, there were none to be found in the resort. I was finally reduced to persuading the owner of a rental store in nearby Heavenly to sell me the one video of it he had on his shelves.

The very basic "boy-meets-girl and good-meets-bad" plot line of Hot Dog was largely replicated in Ski Patrol and Ski School, both made in 1990. I don't regret missing them, but Ski Party, a mountainside version of the Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach movies of the 1960s, is probably worth watching for historical reasons – and for a cameo by James Brown.

Why this sudden interest in the history of the ski movie? Because a new addition to the genre, Chalet Girl, opens on Friday. I went to a preview last month. My date was Ian Coleby, owner of the UK's largest independent ski-chalet company, Skiworld.

Although she hadn't seen it, Coleby's managing director, Diane Palumbo, had already detected a flaw in the the film's authenticity: "The sex," she explained. Her objection was that nowadays Skiworld has no chalet girls; it has "hosts". The change became necessary because male staff often outnumbered the females. The days when you could expect to be greeted in a chalet by some upper-class totty called Georgie are gone; in my experience the host is more likely to be a George, doing a season before joining the army or a merchant bank. But as it turned out, authenticity wasn't really an issue. Any connection between Chalet Girl and the normal chalet-holiday experience was only occasional and incidental.

The chalet girl in question, Kim, is a former skateboarding prodigy working in a fast-food outlet who takes a chalet job for the pay (yes, a credibility gap opens immediately). The chalet, in the Austrian resort of St Anton, is owned privately by a businessman who visits it only infrequently with his family. Kim works there with Georgie; but there is so little to do that she learns to snowboard to pass the time. She enters the Roxy Slopestyle girls' snowboarding competition for the prize money and wins it. Meanwhile she has fallen in love with the chalet-owner's son and she wins him, too.

All this will no doubt be much enjoyed by 13-year-old girls. Felicity Jones (Kim) is likeable and Ed Westwick (the chalet-owner's son) is a known heart-throb, despite his slight resemblance to a sea creature. But the movie left the two old skiers at the preview disappointed, except by the characteristically nonchalant performance of chalet owner Bill Nighy.

Coleby pointed out afterwards that "people in our chalets do a six-day week; they don't do the odd weekend". But that was our problem: unlike Nighy, we took the film seriously. We wondered how much of it was actually shot in St Anton, which looked so sensational in monochrome in White Ecstasy, 80 years ago. The resort's main Galzig lift features prominently, but when Kim arrives by train it is at the station in nearby Pettneu, not St Anton (possibly because the latter's modern station doesn't look the part). I wondered why the actress playing snowboard champion Tara Dakides was so unconvincing. It turned out that Dakides, a Roxy Slopestyle winner, played herself.

It should be said that Coleby appreciates that neither fact nor fiction can tell the whole story, especially on screen. His company was featured in the 1998 BBC television series War and Piste, set in Val d'Isere. It was certainly good television, entertaining for ordinary viewers. But Coleby was far from happy with the way it portrayed Skiworld.

Of course, Chalet Girl doesn't show the reality of a seasonal ski-worker's life. Those early-morning shifts and all the washing and cleaning: who'd want to watch that? Anyway, last year's ski movie, Frozen, probably went as far down the "harsh reality" route as the genre can go. A version of Waiting For Godot relocated to the fictional ski area of Holliston in New England, it concerns three people stranded in extreme weather when the chair-lift on which they are riding is shut down. Why are they not rescued? Because it is a Sunday evening, nobody knows they are up there and the ski area is only open at weekends. And why don't they have their mobile phones with them? If they did, there wouldn't have been a movie.

Peculiar and thin but surprisingly well-realised, Frozen deserves a rare place of honour in the ski-movie canon. And I haven't felt the same about chair-lifts ever since...

'Chalet Girl' is released on Friday

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