'Love According to Dalva' Won't Let You Look Away

It’s not clear how old Dalva (Zelda Sampson) is when her face first appears on screen, but the audience soon learns the 12-year-old is made to look much older than she is for a reason. Emmanuelle Nicot’s debut film, Love According to Dalva, opens in a frenzy of screams and shouts as Dalva, with her red hair placed perfectly into a chignon, bangs her fists on a door screaming for a man named Jacques (Jean-Louis Coulloc’h) as the police take him away. Shortly after that, Dalva is seen being quietly examined by a calm but concerned doctor. The girl focuses on the woman’s eyes, brown skin, and necklace as the examination occurs. As Nicot’s camera zooms in on Dalva’s face, her youth is immediately apparent, and it’s clear that something horrible has happened to her, even if she doesn’t realize it just yet. 

Sexual abuse and trauma are always challenging to unpack, especially when the survivors are children and have dealt with incest. They are also narratives that are nearly unbearable to watch on screen. However, by turning the story over to Dalva, instead of centering it on one of the adults surrounding her, Nicot never allows her audience to look away. Instead, in Love According to Dalava, we walk through Dalva’s journey with her as she struggles to understand the grooming and the abuse she’s endured while trying to recapture some of the childhood that has been snatched away from her. 

Dalva has never been given a true understanding of girlhood

Dalva’s first indication that something about her relationship with her father, Jacques, wasn’t appropriate is when she arrives at her new home, a youth shelter. She’s housed with a defiant and boisterous girl named Samia (Fanta Guirassy). Though adultifed in her own regard, Samia’s understanding of girlhood is drastically different from Dalva’s. Samia speaks frankly about her mother’s occupation as a sex worker, and it’s clear that she knows she’s already gotten a raw deal in life. Moreover, despite her delight in cigarettes and swear words, Samia is a comfort to Dalva, providing a helping hand after the redhead begins menstruating and later as a non-judgmental shoulder to cry on. 

‘Love According to Dalva’ has some deeply uncomfortable moments

Through Samia’s gruff but loving guidance, a quiet therapist, and the patience of Dalva’s caring social worker, Jayden (Alexis Manenti), the young girl slowly begins to realize the way she was taught to “show love” was horrific. Still, though Samia provides much of the levity in this film, there are some deeply uncomfortable moments. 

Moreover, a couple of Nicot’s choices feel untruthful. When he first appears onscreen, the audience is immediately wary of the burly Jayden, especially since it seems farfetched that Dalva would be assigned a male social worker, given what happened to her. Since Dalva has been taught to be so closed off to those around her for nearly a decade, it seems strange that she would reveal so much of past to her nosey new classmate Lucile (Charlie Drach). 

Emmanuelle Nicot’s debut film is exceptional

Despite all of this, Love According to Dalva is an exceptional filmNicot always allows Dalva to speak for herself, no matter how uncomfortable her truth may make us. As Dalva allows herself to sit in the world outside of the bubble that Jacques locked her in, she slowly begins to learn who she is, what she likes, how to express herself through her clothing choices, and why love and affection don’t have to have sinister or sexual undertones. 

Tenderly acted and shot, Nicot protects her subject and her actors fearlessly. Sampson is astonishing, a newcomer with a willful and innocent presence whose silent stares hold as much weight as her dialogue. The importance of female directors is also paramount here. Though the abuse Dalva has endured is stated plainly, Nicot never exploits her actors or the narrative by placing any abuse or gratuitous shots on screen. This allows the audience to settle into the difficult subject matter and the affecting performances without ever turning away. 

Love According to Dalva was screened at the Cannes Film Festival on May 20, 2022, as a part of Unifrance’s Inaugural Critics Lab.

How to get help: If you or someone you know has been sexually abused, text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 for free and confidential support.

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