A sobering and difficult watch, Love According To Dalva is a French film that explores what it means to be a victim of childhood sexual abuse with unfiltered depth and tremendous sensitivity to its subject. It also makes it a difficult film to critique or recommend.
Directed by Emmanuelle Nicot, the film centres on Dalva (Zelda Samson), a 12-year-old who dresses and styles herself like an adult woman. Ripped from her home with a single father, she’s put into temporary foster care, overseen by sympathetic social worker Jayden (Alexis Mananeti) and sharing a room with the precocious Samia (Fanta Guirassy), another kid with more worldliness than she should have for her age.
What is at first implied becomes horribly clear as Dalva opens up more about her extremely inappropriate relationship with her father, who has kept her hidden from her mother and the rest of the world since the age of five. In that time, Dalva seems to have become a replacement for adult female companionship for him – innocent clay to shape to his will and not only tightly control but also make her believe that what they’re doing is normal; that this is the love a father and daughter should share.
It’s an incredibly uncomfortable truth seldom highlighted in both fictitious and non-fictitious accounts of this type of domestic abuse that goes against what society might perceive as the ‘ideal’ victim: someone who wants to escape and is grateful to their rescuers. Instead, Dalva does everything she can to return to the environment she considers home, culminating in a particularly shocking disrobing moment during a prison visit. Moments like these are very carefully shot, keeping the camera tight to Dalva from the shoulders up and the focus on her facial expressions to avoid any hint of luridness. A scene later on where Dalva examines her body, meanwhile, is also shot with a delicate balance of intimacy and sensitivity, softly-lit snapshots under the cover of a bedsheet: exploratory but never exploitative.
Samson is a phenomenal young actress, completely convincing in such a psychologically and emotionally complex role, while Nicot’s direction is raw and unfussy, almost biographical in its representation of this short but dramatic period of change in Dalva’s life, and of the wildness and freedom that childhood should be. However, while a powerful character study and an important perspective on the complexities of victimhood, arguably, Love According To Dalva doesn’t go far enough.
Deeply arresting as it is, the film doesn’t leave you with much to question, nor an understanding about how these situations happen or what we can do about them, in part, because it unfolds over such a compressed amount of time. While the decision to cut out the abuser from the narrative is to be applauded, it means context and closure are largely absent, leaving only emotion and provocative imagery.
As a result, it’s hard to know what the real takeaway of Nicot’s film is, other than to sit in impotent misery as the credits roll, knowing that this kind of abuse happens probably all around us and the only thing we can hope is that there are children as resilient as Dalva out there who can find the strength to survive.
Dir. Emmanuelle Nicot (15, 87 mins)
Love According To Dalva is in cinemas now
words HANNAH COLLINS
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