Director under magical power of cinema

Dalva filmmaker on the dark side of childhood, early influences, and a casting marathon

by Richard Mowe

Emmanuelle Nicot on Zelda Samson, who plays the title role in Love According To Dalva: 'She was impressively mature. She also had confidence, strength, something brash and, above all, an incredibly filmic face'
Emmanuelle Nicot on Zelda Samson, who plays the title role in Love According To Dalva: 'She was impressively mature. She also had confidence, strength, something brash and, above all, an incredibly filmic face' Photo: © Caroline Guimbal Helicotronc Tripode Productions
Emmanuelle Nicot: 'The films I saw then as a teenager made such an impression on me that they answered a lot of questions I had but never dared ask and I felt less alone'
Emmanuelle Nicot: 'The films I saw then as a teenager made such an impression on me that they answered a lot of questions I had but never dared ask and I felt less alone' Photo: Marie Rouge/UniFrance
When she was 18 Love According To Dalva director Emmanuelle Nicot was taken to a film festival near to her home town of Sedan on the River Meuse in the Ardennes close to the border of France and Belgium. The theme of the festival, Les Enfant du Cinéma in Charleville-Mézières, was films whose main characters were children.

Watching such films as Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl (À Ma Soeur), dealing with the relationship between two sisters, and Walter Salles’s Central Station about a young boy whose mother has just died, had a profound effect on her.

Cut to a beach at last year’s Cannes Film Festival where Nicot is talking about her first feature after Love According To Dalva screened to acclaim as part of Critics’ Week and subsequently lauded with prizes and nominations including the International Critics’ Prize (FIPRESCI in Cannes). “The films I saw then as a teenager made such an impression on me that they answered a lot of questions I had but never dared ask and I felt less alone. I went off to University in Louvain (Leuven) to study modern literature and a friend’s passion for cinema made me en enrol for the film option. I started to get good marks, and I realised that this was my place. I started shooting short films and the experience, not to put too fine a point on it, gave meaning to my life. Film can have this magical power.”

Dalva could well have the same effect on the youthful actress who plays the troubled youngster of the title - Zelda Samson. The theme of incest involving her film father with whom she has been living alone for years, after her mother has departed, is delicately and ambiguously handled. The girl believes she is replacing her mother in her father’s affections - and rejects her mother completely.

Emmanuelle Nicot: 'Dalva has internalised the idea that it is in this place and with this appearance, wearing her clothes, make-up and hair that her father loves her'
Emmanuelle Nicot: 'Dalva has internalised the idea that it is in this place and with this appearance, wearing her clothes, make-up and hair that her father loves her' Photo: © Caroline Guimbal Helicotronc Tripode Productions

“Her father has put her in the place of his wife who left him, and has shaped her in her image,” explains Nicot. “Dalva has internalised the idea that it is in this place and with this appearance, wearing her clothes, make-up and hair that her father loves her. In order to maintain this love, which she vitally needs – since she receives no love from anyone else – she has never questioned her situation.”

Nicot describes her approach to the subject as almost like a documentary filmmaker. When she made her short film Snatched (À l’Arrache) she spent time in an emergency reception centre for teenagers. “What struck me was that all the children said to have been abused continued to stand with their families, claiming that the justice system was unjust to have placed them there. I followed two of these kids for years, leading me to discover their journey from family separation to ‘liberation’.

“In addition, a friend of mine had a father who was a youth worker, whose job was to take children suspected of abuse out of their homes and into care. One day, this youth worker had to deal with a six-year-old girl living alone with her father on suspicion of incest; he found himself faced with this hyper-sensualised and sexualised little girl who was in a game of seduction with him. This is how the idea of Dalva was born. I asked myself: ‘What would have become of this little girl at the age of 12, at the age of puberty and the first romances?’”

Nicot found her Dalva as part of a huge casting process both in France and Belgium. “In my mind we were looking for a girl from a middle-class background whom I imagined had this kind of grace about her. We put notices in dance, theatre, horse riding and music schools to try to find her. Zelda found the notice we had placed through a friend. She sent me her details and already when I saw her photograph I was struck by her looks … her hair was all over the place and she looked wild and not at all conventionally ‘feminine’. We did some video tests in which she was amazing with this mix of seeming to be an adult but also maintaining her air of childhood innocence.

“She was impressively mature. She also had confidence, strength, something brash and, above all, an incredibly filmic face. It was impossible to give her an age. I knew immediately that she was Dalva, but I had to convince my producer and Stéphanie [Doncker, casting director in France] because Zelda didn’t look like the ultra-graceful and girly girl we had decided to look for at the beginning. She was a bit hunched over, looked down a lot, had this very wild side and came over as a bit of a tomboy. At the end of the castings, I worked with a make-up artist, a hairdresser and a costume designer. Zelda was suddenly transformed and everyone saw the birth of Dalva.”

Emmanuelle Nicot: 'At the end of the castings, I worked with a make-up artist, a hairdresser and a costume designer. Zelda was suddenly transformed and everyone saw the birth of Dalva'
Emmanuelle Nicot: 'At the end of the castings, I worked with a make-up artist, a hairdresser and a costume designer. Zelda was suddenly transformed and everyone saw the birth of Dalva' Photo: © Caroline Guimbal Helicotronc Tripode Productions
Nicot based the character of the youth worker (played by Alexis Manenti, previously seen in Lady Ly’s Les Misérables) on her own brother whom she describes as a person of “great empathy, not very cerebral, but very professional and at the same time temperamental, who must always contain himself so as not to explode.” She confesses to an admiration for youth workers who are always forced to keep their distance. “Dalva is in this situation. Her father will gradually fall off his pedestal and leave a great void. But in her entourage, the male reference who replaces the father figure is the youth worker who watches over her, sets limits for her, accompanies her in crucial moments.”

For the complex role of the father figure Nicot chose Jean-Louis Coulloc’h who was the game-keeper in a 2006 version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by Pascale Ferran. “I am convinced that absolute monsters do not exist and I needed a complex actor, with an animal side, a wounded bear, but whose look is full of humanity, tenderness and love. He loves his daughter, not properly, but he loves her.”

Nicot claims that Love According To Dalva has given her a confidence that her teenage inclination to follow her star, was the right one. She suggests that going forward that she will keep “listening to my heart as well as my gut feelings.”

Love According To Dalva is on release through 606 Distribution in UK and Ireland cinemas from 28 April.

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