Emmanuelle Nicot paints an achingly beautiful portrait of friendship, recovery and identity through a young girl’s sexual abuse story.
Less gratuitous but similar to the psychology of Jamie Godard’s Toys Are Not for Children, Love According to Dalva explores the ways tenderness, sexuality, and paternal love intersect within a child. “I’m not a girl, I’m a woman,” are the stabbing words spoken by Dalva (Zelda Samson), a 12-year-old girl who wears heavy makeup, scrapes her hair into a bun and dresses in middle-aged women’s clothes.
The film opens with officers taking away Dalva’s father, Jacques (Jean-Louis Coulloch). The camera resists lingering on Jacques, clutching onto Dalva’s gaze and capturing every flinch and tear of pain. Enraged and confused as to why she’s been ripped away from her father and placed into a temporary care home with other neglected children and teens. Dalva initially refuses to comply with her new social worker Jayden (Alexis Maneti). As she demands to be reunited with her father, who she only refers to by his first name, the film unpacks the complexity of controlling relationships through various interactions with Jayden.
It’s a fragile subject matter to explore. But when one in 20 children have been abused in the UK, is our harrowing reality – it’s integral. Nicot previously volunteered at an emergency youth centre, where she learned the story of a six-year-old girl who had lived alone with her father, who sexually abused her. The characters in Love According to Dalva are fictitious, but the story reflects reality.
One shattering scene in a police station shows a chilling interaction between Dalva and Jacques. It forces the audience to witness a raw manifestation of an abuser’s conditioning of a child. However, Nicot focuses on the victim’s story and recovery, allowing little screentime of Jacques, and forbidding him of an explored backstory or psyche.
What follows isn’t a sensationalised depiction of trauma but an autonomous journey of learning how to be a child that subverts the standard victim narrative. It’s a reverse coming-of-age story. As she unties her hair, wipes off the dark purple lipstick and rebelliously takes a drag of a cigarette, Dalva begins to deconstruct her perceptions and navigate her identity beyond trauma.
Nicot’s experience as a casting director aids in the organic performance of each cast member, with an exceptional performance by Samson. She takes on the heaviness of Dalva’s character with a balance of maturity and vulnerability. Dalva’s story isn’t one of individualism, but one that speaks to the collective and pays tribute to the power of solidarity and friendship through the character of Samia (Fanta Guirassy), Dalva’s roommate – a refreshingly fleshed out character played with heart and authenticity by Guirassy.
Nicot’s debut is a sensitive and intimate insight into the lives experienced by too many. Handled with delicacy and bravery, Nicot has crafted a powerful anatomy of the imprint of sexual abuse. Love According to Dalva is a voice for those who can’t speak out.
Published 25 May 2022
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