Love According to Dalva review – deafeningly empty exploration of child abuse
This miserable and pointless debut feature from writer-director Emannuelle Nicot has nothing to say about its traumatic subject matter
The explosion of true crime documentaries we’ve seen over the past few years, particularly since the success of Netflix’s Making a Murderer, is partly down to the salacious nature of these stories. The trend has been fairly criticised for exploiting and sensationalising the real suffering and trauma of victims, and wallowing in the grossest, most heinous impulses of human behaviour: rape, pedophilia, kidnapping, child abuse and murder, much of it directed against women, all for the benefit of an audience inherently drawn to such nasty material, regardless of moral worth.
Love According to Dalva deals with much of the same material but in a fictional vein, with a steadfastly naturalistic approach suggesting a riposte to the melodramatic style of its documentary equivalents. This assumes that this approach is inherently better. It is not. It is far worse.
This debut feature by Emannuelle Nicot tells the story of the titular young girl (Zelda Samson) who, at age 12, is sent to a youth home in the wake of the arrest of her father, who has effectively kidnapped her and sexually abused her from a very young age. Understandably for someone who has undergone such incredible trauma, Dalva struggles with adjusting to more familiar, non-sexualised human relationships.
The film has plenty of shocking moments, with Dalva continually dressing in overly sexualised clothing and sincerely believing she’s in a justifiably romantic relationship with her father. Realism is key to the film’s philosophy, the camera careful to focus on Dalva and not her abuser, the script drawn from extensive first-hand research of the state childcare system by Nicot. It’s always just the right side of tasteful and moral, but frequently reminding you of the extremity of what Dalva has gone through. The problem is not one of subject matter: it is one of aesthetic choices and a fundamental misunderstanding of the possibilities and limitations of cinema.
Yes, the film looks like it has been carefully researched. Samson does a fine job (and one would hope that the production team went to great lengths to ensure her safety), as do the rest of the cast. The film is well-shot. But to what end? Once you’ve established that Dalva has been sexually abused from a young age, where do you go?
Empathy seems the obvious initial answer. The idea, so beloved of Roger Ebert, that cinema is an “empathy machine,” is all well and good, but it has absolutely no function here. Every sane viewer will have oceans of empathy for Dalva. She is also, of course, a fictional character. So then, the reason this story exists is simply to cathartically experience and wallow in the misery Dalva lives through. In every camera frame – so often in that semi-handheld close-up that follows a character in their worst moments, the sort of trick beloved of the Dardenne brothers – you’re not really generating empathy but merely holding somebody under the magnifying glass, until they burn up from the heat of the light.
By dressing everything up in such polite, “tasteful” naturalism, you’re only building an ersatz facsimile of the trauma an actual victim lives through: no amount of empathy can find the right camera angle for that. All this ultimately does a disservice to the audience and to Dalvas real and fictional (at least in documentary, the reality of testimony brings a certain strength of its own). Love According to Dalva merely tells us the filmmakers were interested in the worst experiences of humanity, but not in any insights to be gleaned from it – just a deafeningly empty, miserable repeating of the trauma of child sexual abuse. Well done you.
Love According to Dalva is released in UK cinemas on 28 April.Where to watch