March 20, 2023

INTERVIEW: Emmanuelle Nicot on her arresting ‘Dalva’ – IFFR 2023


Now, that’s a film that will grab your face and let you soak in a reality little known; the deeper implications of incest. Tough to look at, and confusing when coming from the eyes of a child. This film offers a unique perspective, so far hardly addressed (perhaps besides memoirs written by victims at a later age). Emmanuelle Nicot, with all the sensitivity and competence possible, held a firm aperture towards a burning, undiscovered censurable complexity.

The story of ‘Dalva’ starts when she gets separated from her father. While she is delivered to an emergency shelter for young victims of abuse, she is set to regain what has forcefully lost. For us, she is beyond any doubt confused. Her normality is felonious in the face of law and society. But she thought this was love.

This story is a thorough investigation of the body (and mind) of a girl manipulated into a woman. The clothes, make-up, and hairstyle are a perfect imitation of a middle-aged woman, dedicated to (a) male gaze and patriarchal care. Her walk, gestures, and look attract these as well. She had been forced into a female character, with the impression of being loved. The alternative title of the film, ‘Love according to Dalva,’ hints at the most striking subject of the film; the thick emotional layers of abuse, that are profoundly embedded in the child, formative alright, demanding and interrupting in a normative method of emancipation. In other words, the film reveals all the unthought imprints of incest on a child under the influence, and highlights the intricacies of social responsibility and aftercare. This, along with the exceptional performance of Zelda Samson, makes ‘Dalva’ a flawless reality-check and a masterpiece example of (western) cinema.


You delivered an overwhelming and at points painful-to-watch story. The close contact of the camera with Dalva’s face is a slow-burning revelation of a new perspective to the audience. We watch a girl that doesn’t feel abused, being forced to confront a crime committed against her. She is violently asked to change her reality. How did you construct such a unique character as Dalva’s? What research did you have to do while making the film?

I did a big research work. I was meeting with phycologists, educators, and judges for children’s cases. I also did lots of reading of testimonies and psychology books. Some of the characters in the film were inspired by real children I met when researching and visiting shelters.

For me, the central

question of the film is around the idea of ‘emprise’-a very difficult word to translate in English; being under the control of somebody, psychologically and romantically. That was my personal question as well. I was searching for the emotional truth of this, while getting out from the manipulation, the control, the grip. For the script, I was aiming to keep the audience very close to Dalva, from the beginning to the end. And to maintain an awareness, ‘le prix de conscience.’

This new perspective on a story of incest is very original. It builds up and justifies Dalva’s behavior, without the need for flashbacks or explicit details from the backstory. What points were important to you when leading Dalva to emancipation?

I didn’t want to use flashbacks at all. What interested me was the resilience of Dalva, and all the marks that incest left on her.

I found particularly delicate the character of the male caretaker. Dalva went from the dangerous hands of her father directly to another male. While the figure of the mother was somehow collateral to the story. In a reversed way, Dalva’s transformation without the female figure evokes female empowerment. Was this a conscious choice?

Indeed, the mother is not developed as a character. Dalva is about to meet, to know her better, after the film line. I wanted to show that for the first time, Dalva encounters her mother, she perceives her as a competitor, an opponent. During the whole film, we understand that her father has led her to take the place of her mother. In the end, she stands beside her mother, as a little girl, she and the mother are two different people. She sees her mother as an alliance.

The female dimension is very present. The big idea of the script is that this girl thinks of herself as a woman. We watch her return to a child. The grip is materialized through the clothes. Which also symbolizes the influence of the male gaze. When you are under the influence of someone, you dress as he wants you to be dressed. And Dalva, as a woman, takes off the clothes, removes the sensuality and sexuality, and returns to being a child or teenager.

The subject of outcast minorities, especially when thinking of children, has been examined in many films over the last few years. I remember the great example of the French ‘The Worst Ones’. Sadly, it remains socially relevant and cannot be exhausted. What do you hope your film primary brings to what we have already seen?

I was always interested to talk about social minorities. My short films were about that as well. I started to work on the project of ‘Dalva’ years ago. Back then, nobody talked about incest. It was before the French ‘MeToo’. Maybe that was the upcoming subject. But I never thought in these terms. I am not at all strategic. I just wanted to tell this story.

This is your first feature film. It has been picked up and highlighted by big film festivals, not only in Europe. You won the FIPRESCI Award at Cannes, and obviously, you are winning the attention of the audience as well. What do you think of this success? How do you perceive it for your future films?

It is true that I will never be as innocent as I was when making ‘Dalva’. I didn’t imagine anything about the life of the film. I didn’t think of reaching Cannes. And, for sure, for my next film, I will have expectations.

Now with ‘Dalva’, I am discovering the whole film industry system that I didn’t know. I am really happy to see that I can belong to this system. I will be afraid of the next film, of not belonging to it anymore. But I try to not be strategical for my next steps, to just keep listening to my heart and to my guts. I will try to remain as sincere as I can, listening to myself and to what I want to tell, instead of thinking about the rest.


‘Love According to Dalva’ premiered at Cannes Film Festival 2022. ‘Dalva’ was screened at the 52nd International Film Festival Rotterdam (Harbour programme), and won the Audience Award. ‘Dalva’ will be in Dutch cinemas from the 4th of May 2023. 

2022, Country: France, Belgium| 83 mins | Dir: Emmanuelle Nicot | Writers: Jacques Akchoti (collaboration), Bulle Decarpentries (collaboration), Emmanuelle Nicot (screenplay)| Stars: Zelda Samson, Alexis Manenti, Fanta Guirassy| Cinematography: Caroline Guimbal