Director: Léa Mysius Starring: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Sally Dramé, Swala Emati, Moustapha Mbengue, Daphné Patakia Running Time: 95 minutes
We sometimes encounter a scent so potent it brings us back to a memory. We sometimes have a memory so potent we wish that we could really go back there and change it. In the strange, sensual, sensational film The Five Devils by Léa Mysius, a little girl with an unusual power begins to pick up on the pasts of her parents – as perceptions and projections combine, the air around their calm and quiet life turns sour.
Vicky (Sally Dramé) is a preteen girl bound to the hip of her mother Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a swimming instructor in a boring marriage to firefighter husband Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue). They live in a Partout Ville, Francais type town, all small talk and small minds, but there is something supernatural about their super normal existence. Vicky can smell anything with absolute clarity and accuracy and what’s more, she can recreate any scent of her choosing, which she collects in carefully labelled jars. When Jimmy brings home his younger sister Julia (Swala Emati) to stay, much to her mom’s ire and anxiety, Vicky doesn’t need magical gifts to tell that something stinks.
Joanne is eager for Julia to leave asap, and keeps her return a shameful secret. So why do the two slip back into such a quick rapport? It might not take long for a grown up to piece together their past, or the origins of the rumours and rude comments about Julia’s mental health that the townsfolk make. But Vicky is only a little girl, perceptive and hyperperceptive though she may be, so she discovers a new ability while trying to learn more – the scent combo between Joanne and Julia is so powerful that it transports Vicky into their past, watching scenes of their relationship and the town’s tragic secrets unfurl. It sounds loopy, but it’s played totally straight, and totally effectively.
Vicky is a literal embodiment of the fault in the line between her parents and Julie’s lives, and feels very conscious about it. Dramé, wide eyed but not precocious, is the kind of kid you can easily understand parents going to war for – Mbengue and particularly Exarchopoulos perfectly play how much they love their kid even if things are cold between them. Mysius and co-writer Paul Guilhaume make fantastical the very real feelings children develop when they pick up on tension between the adults around them, and they give Vicky a way of actually getting some insight on it. The history she sees from before her birth is enticing – perhaps we all could understand our parents better if we saw their lives before us – but it inevitably throws up more questions than it answers. The chemistry in the past between Exarchopoulos and Emati is so casual and kinetic, keenly felt in the touch. Would Vicky exist is they stayed together? It’s an idea that haunts the child. Her presence, in turn, haunts Julia. In the present, watching sparks rekindle between Joanne and Julia is gripping. Emati’s hesitancy when a drunk Joanne drags her up to sing karaoke is a highlight, while Exarchopoulos, always more interesting to watch in films other than her most famous film Blue is the Warmest Colour, blossoms in regression, Julia pushing back against her stifling day life.
The film teems with tension and taboo. Adult melodrama playing out in front of a child’s eyes, and the supernatural aspect alongside it throws a straightforward story off balance, an odd concept working in service of its story. The interesting ideas and audacious presentation smuggle in a love story between Joanne and Julia, and a love between Vicky and her parents, that’s endearing and enduring, beneath the ominous intrigue is a touching story too. Perceptive about perception, The Five Devils burns brightly, delivering insights with impish precision.(4 / 5)
The Five Devils is in Irish cinemas now and streaming on MUBI in the UK and Ireland from 12th May.