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Presented at Cannes as part of Critics’ Week, the Franco-Belgian film “Dalva” tells the story of a young girl torn from the grip of her abusive father and who must relearn how to live like a child of her age. A captivating psychological dive that explores questions of control, consent and resilience.
A police raid on his home and “Dalva”, 12, finds himself overnight placed in a home. Separated from her father, the young girl, who dresses and makes up like a woman twice her age, has the feeling of experiencing an injustice. Accompanied by an educator and his roommate, the young Dalva will gradually get out of the grip to relearn how to live.
This pitch is the starting point for the first feature film by Belgian director Emmanuelle Nicot. Selected as part of Critics’ Week at the 75th Cannes Film Festival, “Dalva” is a punchy film that tackles a difficult subject without any pathos, through the masterful performance of the young Zelda Samson. Meeting, on the Croisette, with the filmmaker Emmanuelle Nicot.
France 24: your film “Dalva” addresses the issue of trauma caused by incest, an extremely difficult subject: why did you choose this theme for a first feature film ?
Emmanuelle Nicot: first of all there is the theme of control which is quite personal to me and which I have already explored a great deal in my short films. I wanted to continue this work with “Dalva”.
For my last project, I had the opportunity to do an immersion in an emergency reception center for adolescents. There, I met many children placed because of proven abuse and who continued to unite with their families against justice. Children who were still under the control of their parents sometimes years after their placement. I had worked on the conjugal and friendly influence but I had not realized how strong this could be in the family context vis-à-vis children.
Added to this was a story that a friend told me. Her educator father intervened to place a six-year-old girl who lived alone with her father. He discovered a hyper sensual, sexual and eroticized child. This story worked for me, I wondered what she would have become at the age of 12, at the time of the first emotions, of puberty and that’s how the film “Dalva” was born.
The film is based on the character played by Zelda Samson and plays on the ambiguity of her age. How did you recruit this actress and work on this child-woman character ?
I imagined a little girl who came from a middle or even well-to-do class, very graceful, very porcelain doll. I placed advertisements in equestrian centres, classical dance and music schools. But the profiles did not match because there was no counterpoint between the Dalva created by his father and the Dalva without him. And then I fell in love with Zelda, a very wild little girl, very tomboyish with a dark look, something very cheeky. It worked right away, this contrast immediately gave relief to the character.
She has both a very chubby face and a very cinematic side. Her physique changes depending on how she is filmed, she can seem very feminine or very childish. We worked on how to stand and walk with a coach, a former dancer, who followed her throughout the shoot to correct her postures: sitting, eating, etc. There was also a lot of research on dressing and hairstyle because we didn’t want “Dalva” to be a Lolita. She is a young girl with the grace of a lady, so it was absolutely necessary to avoid eroticizing her and making her vulgar. Finally, we have set up psychological support to ensure that the shooting goes as well as possible for our young actress.
In recent years, the #MeToo scandals have raised significant awareness about psychological and sexual violence against women. On the more specific issue of incest, it feels like things are moving more slowly, how do you feel ?
I started writing on this subject six years ago, at a time when very little was said about incest. Then there was the #MeToo wave in which incest cases came to light. I am thinking in particular of Camille Kouchner’s book (where the author accuses her stepfather of incest on her twin brother in the late 1980s, Ed). But the question of incest fell more quickly; it was stifled again and remains a taboo subject because of the extent of its repercussions, because to denounce is to explode the whole family sphere.
I consider that there is also a lack of awareness on this subject. During the casting, I realized that no child knew the meaning of incest. It is a word that is not taught to children when this problem affects an average of two children per class, according to statistics. For us, it was out of the question for children to pass the tests without knowing what the film is about.
Each time, I called the parents, asking them to raise the subject with their children so that they could decide whether or not to pass the casting knowingly. Of course, the charge that children put in this word is not the same as that put by adults. For them, the film experience was above all a game, a first time and the magic of shooting. The subject was much more difficult to grasp for adult actors like Alexis Manenti, who plays the educator.
To conclude, you have the privilege of seeing your very first film selected at Cannes, in the most prestigious film festival in the world. What is your reaction and what do you expect from this exhibition ?
Of course, I live that very well! I am very happy because this spotlight can give a big boost to the film in a difficult period for cinema, where attendance is at half mast. I am also well aware that this is a film which apparently tackles a difficult subject. I hope this exhibition will make people want to see it and push them to overcome some apprehensions they may have.
“Dalva” obviously talks about a very serious subject with the impact of incest on childhood. But it is also and above all a film about reconstruction. For me, it’s also a luminous and solar film, carried by the energy of its young actors. I want people to see it as a film full of hope.