By Robert St. Martin
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 4/8/23 – On screen currently at the Glendale Laemmle Theatre and the Laemmle Monica Film Center is The Five Devils (Les Cinq Diables), a 2022 French fantasy drama film directed by Léa Mysius. who co-wrote the screenplay with Paul Guilhaume. The Five Devils is Léa Mysius’ first film as a director since her 2017’s heady study of adolescence, Ava. This, her latest, is an often-gripping magical-realist mystery drama with a fain whiff of horror. While The Five Devils don’t quite have the clarity of vision of her previous picture, its emotion, erotically charged themes, and puzzle-box structure leave much to recommend. The film premiered at Cannes in 2022 and was included in the lineup of the AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles in November of 2022; it has been picked by MUBI for online viewing.
Part queer love story, part supernatural psychodrama, the film follows an eight-year-old girl Vicky (Sally Dramé) who has a magical sense of smell. Vicky who can smell and reproduce any scent of her choosing. She collects these in carefully labeled jars. The solitary child has a very strong bond with her mother Joanne (Adèle Éxarchopoulos), whose scent she also secretly captures. When her father’s sister Julia appears in their life, Vicky also begins to reproduce her scent. Julia has recently been released from prison, and Vicky is transported into dark and magical memories which lead her to discover the secrets of her village, her family and her own existence.
The name of the film The Five Devils comes from the location of the story in Bourg-San-Maurice in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region in Southeastern France. The “Five Devils” are actually the rocky spires in the Alps next to Mont Blanc. The idyllic landscape does play a major role in the film, with the obvious mountain terrain and the cold alpine lake where Vicky’s mother Joanne likes to swim. The film’s moody opening puts us in the rural town’s community pool and the nearby alpine lake linked by the use of blue color grading. The cool tone undercuts the idyllic views of the countryside with a subtle eeriness that grows more pronounced as the film takes us deeper into the lives of young swim instructor Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and her biracial daughter, Vicky (Sally Dramé), who have a loving, if somewhat distant, relationship.
The Five Devils feels like the work of a more seasoned filmmaker. As a screenwriter, Léa Mysius has collaborated with major French directors like Arnaud Desplechin on Ismael’s Ghosts (2017) and Oh Mercy! (2019), Jacques Audiard on Paris, 13th District (2021) and Claire Denis on Stars at Noon (2022). Mysius tells a story about racism, sexism, small-town provincialism, and homophobia, all within the alluring swirl of a supernatural thriller. There’s also a time-travel element that raises as many questions as it answers. Her film features some captivating performances – namely from the young actress at its center, Salley Dramé – who plays the young girl Vicky with her strangest of smell. These scents include that of her mother Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos), with whom she has an everlasting bond. When Vicky’s father’s sister Julia (Swala Emati) is released from prison, the capturing of her scent prompts Vicky to travel into her own memories that contain the secret to who she really is.
Vicky’s mother Joanne (Adèle Éxarchopoulos) was a champion gymnast and all-around popular girl in her youth; now, Joanne goes through the motions teaching water aerobics to the elderly at the local pool. Her daughter Vicky is biracial. Her firefighter father, Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue) is originally from Senegal – which makes her the target of mean girls who bully her for her big bushy hair, pushing her around and calling her “Toilet Brush.” Still, Vicky is a self-possessed only child who enjoys her solitude, occupying her time collecting various items in jars for the memories their scents evoke. She has a preternatural sense of smell, as we see from a suspenseful early sequence in which her mother blindfolds her with a scarf and asks Vicky to find her in the forest.
The family’s simple life gets upended when Jimmy’s younger sister, Julia (Swala Emati) returns after ten years away. Her arrival also sends a ripple through the town, where she’s not just notorious but a pariah for a devastating act she committed long ago. Joanne and Julia have a bristling tension from the start: There’s some history between them, which The Five Devils explores in flashbacks. But even before then, Emati plays the character of Julia with the trepidation of a wounded animal. As for the man at the center of this connection, Mbengue as Jimmy is withdrawn and uncommunicative (his character is not really developed at all.)
Vicky literally sniffs out trouble with the arrival of her enigmatic aunt, Julia (Swala Emati) – the sister of her father, Jimmy (Moustapaha Mbengue), and the local pariah. One whiff of Julia’s clothes and personal items causes her to pass out and transports her to the past, where she can peek in on her future mom, dad, and aunt at crucial moments in their shared history. Oddly, only Julia can see Vicky watching her in their time-travel interludes from the past. There is something preternaturally uncanny, almost witchy, about Vicky’s intrusions into the past of the adults in her life. Joanne seems particularly affected by what is happening between Joanne and her daughter Vicky. She implores Jimmy to send Julia away. A decade prior, around the time Vicky was born, Julia was exiled after an episode of pyromania. Her actions left Joanne’s friend, Nadine (Daphné Patakia), permanently disfigured.
Exarchopoulos is a fine actress to watch in her attempt to be a good mother to Vicky and at the same time grapple with the return of the woman Julia with whom she was once much in love. at the center of both of these extremes. As shown in films like Blue is the Warmest Color, the French actress has a raw presence that suggests an exciting unpredictability in The Five Devils. Swala Emati makes the character of Julia equally mysterious and wounded in her consternation over Vicky’s spectral presence haunting her throughout her life.
Although The Five Devils stops short at tipping into horror itself, Paul Guilhame’s rich, high-contrast cinematography evokes the psychological horror of the 1970s, while Vicky’s pseudo-witchcraft and the film’s broader themes of sexuality, transgression and betrayal certainly draw from the same well as other contemporary Gothic fables such as Border, Raw or Let The Right One In. The soundtrack includes popular songs that resonate with the momentum of the film, culminating in a drunken rendition of the lesbian anthem – Bonnie Tyler’s ever-elemental “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Indeed, the structuring of songs into key sections of the film seems reminiscent of the way Claire Denis incorporates songs in her films. Mysius’ recurring use of fire and water imagery works well in the film: At opposite ends, Julia is associated with a devastating fire, Joanne works in a swimming pool, in the middle Jimmie is a firefighter. Such imagery – and the messy love triangle that it represents – is much harder to pin down than a jigsaw-shaped narrative, but ultimately far richer.