Love According to Dalva: this sensitive debut explores the aftermath of abuse

Zelda Samson gives a remarkable performance as Dalva, a 12-year-old-girl coming to terms with her experiences of sexual abuse.

28 April 2023

By Catherine Wheatley

Zelda Samson in Love According to Dalva (2022)Zelda Samson in Love According to Dalva (2022) © Courtesy of 606 Distribution
Sight and Sound

How to describe that strange, shimmering age when girls are caught between child- hood and adolescence? Proust’s jeunes filles en fleur? Nabokov’s ‘nymphet’? Tweenagers? None of these words quite capture the ambivalent oscillation between innocence and experience we see in, say, Sophie (Frankie Corio), the young heroine of Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun (2022), cautiously dipping her toes in the water of teenage sexuality. Or, a little older, Mia (Katie Jarvis) in Fish Tank (2009), her dancing flipping between silly and seductive.

In Emmanuelle Nicot’s first feature, Love According to Dalva, schoolgirls twist their hair and giggle, delivering lip-gloss kisses and teasing insults to the boys in the playground. At the neighbouring care home where Dalva (Zelda Samson) is resident, her fellow boarders shimmy into cropped tops and drag kohl along their eyelids, rehearsing for the adult courtship rituals that wait just out of sight.

Twelve-year-old Dalva is not like these other girls. She doesn’t consider herself a girl at all, but “a woman”. A still, poised presence, Dalva wears stockings, court shoes, pencil skirts; sheer blouses and pearl earrings. She keeps her long red hair in a strange, 1940s chignon. She refuses to smoke because it’s “vulgar”. The other girls make fun of her mannered speech and her upright bearing. Her care worker tells her to change into something more appropriate for a child of her age.

But Dalva doesn’t know what that is, because Dalva has never had a childhood. At age five, she was kidnapped by her father, who kept her confined indoors, moving house every few years to avoid detection. He home-schooled her, chose her clothes and dyed her hair. At some point, he began raping her. Not that Dalva would call it that: as her therapist says, she doesn’t know the difference between love and making love.

The film opens in medias res, as Dalva is dragged kicking and screaming from the man she calls ‘Jacques’, and for most of its running time she desperately tries to make her way back to him. When finally they are reunited at the prison where he is being held, she stands up, and in one sudden gesture throws off her parka, revealing an open-backed lace dress. She’s at once passionate and regimented: a soldier standing to attention. “You look beautiful,” he tells her.

Love According to Dalva (2022)
Love According to Dalva (2022)
© Courtesy of 606 Distribution

Set largely in the residential home where Dalva is placed, Nicot’s realist social drama, cast largely with non-professional child actors, calls to mind Samantha Morton’s TV drama The Unloved (2009) and Fred Baillif’s La Mif (2021), which also centre on the care system and the children who pass through it. It also shares certain territory with a number of post-#MeToo rape revenge narratives – Promising Young Woman (2020), I May Destroy You (2020), and Season 3 of Broadchurch (2017), to take three examples – in that it consigns the horrific catalyst for the drama to the offscreen, focusing instead on the aftermath.

Surprisingly, given the subject matter, it is not an especially arduous film to watch. The most shocking moment arrives during a school-yard game of truth or dare, when one particularly spiteful girl asks Dalva: “Have you sucked off your dad?”

Samson – in a remarkably assured performance – is closed off, inscrutable. The camera stays close, pushing in on her sullen little face, thickly covered in make-up, scrutinising her along with the doctors and care workers to ascertain the extent of the damage. It’s her film, and she carries it, but she’s lent able support by Alexis Manenti (the bullying policeman in Les Misérables, 2019) as her keyworker, and fellow new- comer Fanta Guirassy as Samia, her roommate.

Samia is the daughter of a sex worker and in many ways Dalva’s mirror image: she teaches Dalva to be a child, but is herself terrified of growing up, knowing all too well what it means to be sexually mature. While Dalva rushes towards womanhood, Samia beats it back, wearing baggy tracksuits, refusing make-up, for fear she will see her mother’s face looking back at her.

Throughout the film, across various relationships, Dalva struggles to separate sex from affection. A rather too-neat ending belies the suggestion that overcoming such traumas as Dalva has seen is the work of a lifetime, and that for children like her and Samia, adulthood – and the end of state support – is far from a happy prospect.

► Love According to Dalva is in UK cinemas Friday 28 April. 

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