Review: The Five Devils


Director:  Léa Mysius

Stars:  Adèle Exarchopoulos, Sally Dramé, Swala Emati

Sensorial preoccupations recur in the emerging cinema of Léa Mysius, perhaps the most bodily-fixated French filmmaker since Claire Denis. No small claim. Her 2017 feature debut Ava was a coming-of-age gem in which a young woman’s sight slowly diminished over the course of a winsome summer. For her slippery, genre-defying follow-up, Mysius turns to the power of smell, reconfiguring the sense-memory reminiscences that certain aromas trigger into literal magic doors to the past. Through these means she is able to weave an a-chronological mystery, one that develops her apparent passion for stories of seismic change in young womanhood.

Adèle Exarchopoulos is Joanne Soler, a young mother and aqua-aerobics trainer whose marriage to Senegalese fire-fighter Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue) is on the rocks. Their daughter Vicky (Sally Dramé – a fantastic find) is a strange one; ostracised at school, she spends much of her time either helping with her mother’s swimming sessions in an ice-cold mountain lake or pursuing her own proto-witchy crafts. Gifted with an astonishingly delicate sense of smell, Vicky gathers ingredients in mason jars, mixing perfumes til they exactly match the scents of the people in her life. Taking a big whiff of her concoctions, Vicky is able to transport herself into her subject’s past; a (largely unseen) voyeur to key events surrounding a mysterious fire that links several characters together.

Not dissimilar to the magic sweets that act as gateway to the film-within-a-film in Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go BoatingThe Five Devils’ fantastical conceit might just as easily be read as a paean to the transportive nature of cinema itself; an intoxicant that allows us all to play at visiting other times and places. Vicky comes and goes as she pleases, hitting play or pause on the fragments of a mini drama that coalesce over time creating an ouroboros narrative.

A familial connection starts to suggest itself. Jimmy’s sister Julie (!) (Swala Emati) makes a sudden return into their lives; her visit stirring up mixed emotions from the past for Joanne, among others. With claims of alcoholism and pyromania surrounding her, we are invited to view Julie as Vicky does; an enigmatic figure and catalyst for danger, even though Emati’s tempered performance belies such thinking. Enticingly, Julie seems able to detect Vicky’s interloping into her past. Vicky may think that her time-travel investigations are inconsequential, but she may prove to be the pivotal player in a drama that started before she was even born.

The Five Devils (2022) - IMDb

Mysius captures all of this with some deft visual dynamics. Paul Guilhame’s photography seems to exaggerate a sense of characters peering out without this necessarily meaning fourth wall breaks. Together they catch searching eyes that make us feel like Vicky; in the scene but mystically out of reach of those we’re peeking in on. As though we are occupying some kind of blind spot. Florencia Di Concilio’s score for Ava was one of it’s more striking elements. The Five Devils proves to be just as fruitful a collaboration; an eclectic and uneasy collection of atonal clatters and disquieting hums that accentuate this sense of teetering exposure.

Performances sell the whole. With such a kooky conceit, The Five Devils lives or dies on its handling of tone. Mysius chooses to play this all with a similar earnestness to Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman. Exarchopoulos centres the film with another strong bit of character work, showing us a rounded, lived-in person without playing big for the seats at the back. As indicated, young Dramé is perhaps the most vital player, with arguably the most screen time, the youngster is purely magnetic and very easy to spend long periods with. Emati and Mbengue both underplay wonderfully, matching characters who have – by necessity or compromise – shrunk from the world. Both display power in quietude, in stillness.

Vicky’s mystical talents appear to have no precedent or author within the piece, making her alchemy seem all the more potent. Senegalese mysticism is most commonly passed down – an oral tradition – but Mysius provides no evidence or inclination that this has been the case here. Making her gift seem so preternatural gives it a power all of it’s own. Connecting it to Julie prefigures a suggestion that this paranormal ability might fling itself into the future, too. That there is some new lineage at work.

Chiefly it allows Mysius a method by which to explore the intersecting worlds of adults and children. How each is viewed by the other – or left unseen. Unbeknownst to the adults around her, Vicky is gaining giant insights into different aspects of adult interactions, especially the complexities of sexuality. Through these discoveries, The Five Devils connects to the coming-of-age leanings of it’s predecessor, Ava. Mysius is clearly still fascinated by the events that build us, shape us, and is using these things to build and shape a singular body of work herself. Two for two, she’s placed herself confidently on the world stage as a director to keep an eye on and get excited about.

8 of 10

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close