Writer-director Emmanuelle Nicot’s Love According to Dalva opens with the titular character (Zelda Samson) being violently separated from her father in their own home at the hands of police. Adorned in glitzy evening attire and a heavy smattering of make-up, it’s only in the following scene, at a court-ordered medical examination, that we are able to see just how young Dalva truly is, her prepubescent face struggling to hold back tears as the doctor orders her to lay back and open her legs. It doesn’t take long for the viewers’ suspicions to be confirmed: 12-year-old Dalva had been kidnapped by her father at the age of five and forced into a romantic and sexual relationship that lasted seven years. One of the more remarkable aspects of Love According to Dalva, then, is that Nicot takes such potentially sensationalistic material and imbues it with a humanity that is bracing in its understatement. Nicot has no real interest in the tawdrier aspects of the crimes at hand, simply the devastating effects they have on Dalva herself, whose young mind is unable to comprehend the abuse she has endured.
Indeed, the first half of the film chronicles Dalva’a numerous attempts to see her imprisoned father, a near-impossible task due to the crime at hand and her social worker’s attempts at protecting his young charge’s fragile emotional state. Dalva is ordered to live in a state-run facility that houses dozens of other kids like herself who have nowhere else to go, their lives irrevocably damaged by the adults in their orbit. Dalva’s caseworker, Jayden (Alexis Manenti), is sympathetic to Dalva’s situation but has little patience for her numerous acts of rebellion, deploying a measure of tough love that proves more effective the longer she remains in his care. Dalva resents those individuals seeking to help; she, of course, sees nothing wrong with her formative circumstances, knowing nothing else in her young life. To her, love and sex are one in the same, as she has been hard-wired to believe that affection comes only through physical acts.
Love According to Dalva is predictably an emotionally taxing experience, blunt in the ways it exposes its lead character’s flawed thinking but still sympathetic to her struggles. To Nicot’s credit, never once does she take the easy way out when it comes to the emotional torment Dalva is forced to endure; this is not a film where one therapy session magically solves Dalva’s problems, or where the unexpected friendship from an understandably jaded roommate, Samia (Fanta Guirassy), fills her life with new levity. Put more explicitly, this is not a film about Dalva overcoming the abuse she endured, but rather a portrait of her trying to make some sort of sense of it in real-time, reckoning with the nearly impossible task of undoing seven years of brainwashing. Even when the film threatens to venture into melodramatic territory, such as Dalva’s romantic longing for the much older Jayden, it always feels organic to the wounded girl’s circumstance, and is handled with directness and authenticity, something the similarly themed Short Term 12 couldn’t accomplish.
Samson, for her part, is phenomenal in her feature film debut, forced to run nearly the gamut of human emotion — sometimes within seconds of each other, sometimes simultaneously — and never once striking a false note. Manenti is also impressive, taking a stock character and finding subtle shadings within. Nicot’s direction, meanwhile, is mostly unobtrusive, Academy ratio and handheld camerawork feeling quite obvious yet fairly appropriate given the subject matter. All told, the film is striking enough that it’s surprising to find this is Nicot’s debut, her sure hand and restrained instincts belying her relative inexperience. It goes without saying that Love According to Dalva isn’t an easy watch, but unlike so many calculatedly miserablist efforts dotting the cinema landscape, Nicot’s film musters genuine pathos without resorting to cheap emotional manipulation, a wonderful and rare achievement in our current Marvel-ous age of moviegoing.
Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2022 — Part 4.