One need only look to France’s literary heroes, politicians, and films to see the country’s obsession with young girls — and its penchant for protecting pedophiles. In 2020, the French writer Gabriel Matzneff was outed as the country’s Jeffrey Epstein, after writing about his sexual relations with minors for decades with little consequence. A year later, prominent French intellectual and politician Olivier Duhamel admitted to sexually abusing his stepson following publication of a memoir by his stepdaughter Camille Kouchner. As the last generation to grow up with such laissez-faire attitudes about child abuse comes of age as artists, they are leading the charge on shifting mores as the #MeToo reckoning finally comes for France.
That maturation is apparent in the first feature film from writer/director Emmanuelle Nicot, “Love According to Dalva,” an audacious and unsettling portrait of a young girl dealing with the immediate after-effects of sexual abuse at the hands of her father. By remaining solely within Dalva’s (Zelda Samson) perspective, Nicot abruptly flips the script on the conventional abuse narrative, stubbornly yanking the character out of victim mode and giving her autonomy. It can be a shocking experience as a viewer, to be stuck so firmly inside a mind groomed to believe there was nothing wrong with what happened to her. As she unlearns the twisted lessons forced by her father, she undergoes a reverse coming-of-age, shedding her feigned womanhood for a child’s first bravado, then joy.
The film opens with Dalva’s screams as her father, whom she calls Jacques (Jean-Louis Coullouch), is arrested and taken away. The camera remains fixed on her face, smeared with the kind of makeup a middle-aged woman might wear, as she undergoes an examination from a gentle woman doctor. When she arrives at a group home, she is greeted by a kindly youth worker Jayden (Alexis Manenti), who must promptly chase after her as she makes a run for it. Intrigued by the new arrival, the kids at the home gawk at Dalva’s adult clothes as she insists on wearing high-collared lace blouses and a full face of makeup to school.
She is placed with a roommate named Zamia (Fanta Guirassy), who is introduced with the blast of French hip-hop and a plume of smoke from the cigarettes she eventually shares with Dalva. Though Samia is tough on the outside, she keeps an eye out for Dalva at school and shushes the kids who tease her for looking like a grandma. “It’s OK if she wants to be a lady,” she scolds them. Later, she insists Dalva learn to smoke because it will “do [her] good,” perhaps the most French line in the film.
In therapy sessions, Dalva insists on seeing her father, whom she claims to love. She refuses to believe what they did was wrong, and reacts violently when anyone suggests otherwise. Nicot slowly reveals snippets of the reality of her abuse via other characters, whether from schoolyard gossip or meetings with the judge in her case. We learn that she was kidnapped from her mother after a separation and that her father home-schooled her and moved around so they couldn’t be found. From Dalva’s unusual styling and affect, Nicot paints a picture of how he made her up to look older than she was and told her what a woman should and should not do. Many times throughout the film, Dalva insists she is a woman, and the adult characters must remind her otherwise.
It’s only a matter of time before she imprints on Jayden, the only other older man she has ever met, who is also tasked with taking care of her. Nicot does not push these interactions too far, leaving it at a few thwarted attempts and longing looks. She has thought through every detail of Dalva’s situation, from the clothing to the make-up to the way she interacts with boys and men.
The character is an enigmatic puzzle that slowly comes into focus, both to the audience and to herself. As she sheds her adult affect bit by bit, her friendships with Samia and the other kids at the group home help her let go. By smoking and drinking with the other misfits, the folly of youth slowly washes away her carefully constructed armor. When she haplessly cuts her hair in the mirror, a recognizable enough scene, the transformation is complete. She may look older, but she has regained her childhood.
“Love According to Dalva” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival Critics’ Week. It is currently seeking distribution.