Love According to Dalva

David Cunningham

Writer and director: Emmanuelle Nicot

The title of Emmanuelle Nicot’s film – Love According to Dalva– has a literal meaning. Twelve-year-old Dalva has been groomed to the extent she is effectively brainwashed into regarding the sexual abuse as a sincere expression of love.

Author/ director Nicot takes a discrete approach to a potentially inflammatory subject. The film does not depict sexual abuse but rather its impact so that it is as much about indoctrination as abuse. The movie opens with the authorities, acting on a tip-off from concerned neighbours, forcibly removing Dalva (Zelda Samson) from the home she shared with her predatory father Jacques (Jean-Louis Coulloch).

Living in a foster facility until her birth mother can be located it becomes apparent the abuse endured by Dalva has affected her mentally as much as physically. She refers to her abuser by his first name as if accepting him as a lover and argues it is entirely appropriate for a father and daughter to love each other.

There is the impression Jacques was attracted to Dalva not by her youth but her malleability; he has not only abused his daughter physically but has brainwashed her into becoming his ideal version of a woman. Although she has not yet had her first period Dalva dresses and behaves like an adult woman. Rather than slouch like teenager Dalva walks with her head erect and wears sensual clothing- lacy tops, black stockings- and discrete make-up. On her first day of school, she dresses to the nines as if for a night on the town and declines cigarettes because women who smoke are vulgar.

The indoctrination of Dalva is so complete she parrots Jacques’s doctrines- when a woman loves she must make love. Taken to buy age-appropriate clothing Dalva admits she has never been allowed to choose what to wear before and does not even know her favourite colour. Perhaps the most disturbing moment in the movie is Dalva’s confused and shamed confession that, by not refusing, she consented to being abused.

Zelda Samson, who plays Dalva, is not a professional actor which suits the non-sensational approach taken by director Nicot. Samson plays Dalva as a stranger in a strange land, coming to terms with the fact everything she previously believed was untrue. Samson moves Dalva from someone blindly taking offence at the criticism of her father through halting efforts to blend in with her contemporaries at the foster home and school.

Crucially, Samson refuses to portray Dalva as a victim. The character’s development is illustrated in subtle ways- Samson studying the roots of her hair to determine their true colour rather than the dyed version imposed by her father or instinctively reaching for her mother’s hand when entering court. Samson makes clear the complexities facing Dalva as she matures- during a slow dance at a party she instinctively starts to seduce her all-too-willing partner.

Typical of the understated approach of the movie Jean-Louis Coulloch plays Dalva’s father as a humbled figure- hunched shoulders and making minimal eye contact. There is, however, no sense of guilt or offer of apology. As Jacques complains about the limited shaving facilities available in gaol it is probable he simply feels affronted by the poor treatment he is receiving.

The authorities are portrayed in a sympathetic light, struggling to help Dalva overcome her conditioning. Accustomed to dealing with traumatised children, they struggle with Dalva who behaves like an adult woman and must be taught how to be a child. Jayden (Alexis Manenti), the social worker assigned to Dalva does not become an alternative father figure. He acknowledges that, academically, he is outclassed by Dalva but offers a humane, down-to-earth example of how to cope with the challenges she will face.

The restrained approach to a distasteful subject coupled with an appealing central character ensures Love According to Dalva is both thought-provoking and emotionally engaging.

Love According to Dalva will be available to rent or purchase on several platforms, including iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, and Google Play on 5 September

The Reviews Hub Score

Harrowing but engaging

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