Eerie, heartfelt, and pleasingly unclassifiable, French director and co-writer Léa Mysius’ sophomore feature The Five Devils deliriously trips through several dissimilar genres at once without ever feeling scattered or sloppy. Part domestic drama, childlike time travel fantasy, romance, folk horror, mystery, and even boasting a dash of superhero origin story, The Five Devils is a dynamic and entrancing work that crams a lot of intellectual and entertainment value into a smaller than expected package. On paper, Mysius’ latest sounds like a mess in the making, but in practice, The Five Devils is the kind of film that’s so accomplished that it will leave the viewer wanting more in the best ways possible.
Eight year old Vicky Soler (newcomer Sally Dramé) has a uniquely attuned sense of smell. She obsesses over the aroma of everything around, most notably her beloved swim instructor mother, Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos). Vicky fills up containers with memorably scented solids and liquids, which she both stores in her room and carries around in her backpack, often making her the subject of ridicule from kids and parents in their small mountainside town. (The fact that Vicky is black in a resoundingly white community doesn’t help either.) Vicky’s increasingly powerful sniffer gives Joanne cause for concern, but their family is about to face a bigger challenge, when her husband’s estranged sister, Julia (Swala Emati), comes to pay a visit around the holidays. The history between Julia, her firefighter brother, Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue), and Joanne is the stuff of local legend, but not in a positive way. Vicky immediately picks up that something is off about Julia and follows her nose to investigate their secrets by travelling into the memories contained within certain scents.
Although much of The Five Devils could be classified as “high concept,” Mysius (Ava) does a wonderful job of keeping a story with so many moving parts and plot devices grounded. As the film weaves between fantasy and reality, Mysius and co-writer/cinematographer Paul Guilhaume’s story grows stronger and increasingly captivating. Viewers might find themselves constantly theorizing about what’s going on at the heart of the Soler family throughout, but The Five Devils always goes to places that are both narratively logical and not the first place many will be expecting. A lot of The Five Devils is based in the etherial and supernatural, but it also creates a basis for such reasoning that makes sense and doesn’t require huge suspensions of disbelief.
The idea of being transported across time by a familiar smell is a psychologically astute one, not to mention a nifty plot device, but the real power of Mysius’ film lies in the emotional weight of the situation. From the perspective of young Vicky, the story is about those moments in a kids’ life that forever changes how they view their parents. From Joanne’s perspective, the story symbolizes the various ways that having a child can create less than ideal life transitions. For Julia, the story is about the nature of remorse, and Jimmy would see it as a treatise on letting go. The Five Devils can be seen in a number of different ways depending on which character is taking centre stage at any given moment. It’s mostly Vicky’s story to unravel, but each character has a rich inner life that this child is going to drag out into the open, whether they like it or not.
Tonally, The Five Devils always feels like a film that’s perpetually sneaking up on you. It looks quite inviting at times, thanks to some highly detailed production design, small town vibes, a plethora of recognizable pop songs on the soundtrack, and a perpetual sense of oddness and wonder that’s unshakable. But it’s also quite foreboding, and it’s apparent from the very beginning that Mysius is going to take the material to some very dark places. The score is always ominous, even if the image it’s paired with seems innocuous. The eye catching 35mm cinematography from Guilhaume practically zeroes in on the eyes of the performers without forcing the camera into their faces. Guilhaume is constantly asking the viewer to make eye contact with the characters – something surprisingly few films try to do anymore – and it’s a decision that adds considerable weight. If we can’t smell a movie in the same way Vicky employs her streak of curiosity, the visuals need to fill in the gaps the film’s young protagonist can’t.
Dramé is an outstanding young performer who gives an impressively layered performance that’s asking a lot of someone so young, both mentally and physically. Exarchopoulos plays the part of a weary and wary mother well, but instead of making the viewer think Joanne is a woman who regrets having a kid, the actress transforms the part into something far more reasoned and thoughtful. Emati leans into the mystery behind Julia’s past brilliantly, constantly making the viewer reassess whether this character is a villain or simply misunderstood. There are also a pair of memorable supporting performances from Daphne Patakia as one of Joanne’s suspicious co-workers and Patrick Bouchitey as Vicky’s filthy minded, backwards, and genuinely concerned grandfather.
Once Mysius shifts things more decidedly into sinister territory during the film’s second half, The Five Devils more or less stays on the same track, while still offering up thoughtful twists that hold more than mere shock value. Not everything will add up or be explained perfectly by the end of The Five Devils, but it also doesn’t feel like anything is missing or frustrating. The viewer is left wanting more not because Mysius has to explain everything further, but because the world and concept is so enriching that one becomes curious about what comes next for these people and where they go from there. It’s a hard film to talk about in any great detail without spoiling, but The Five Devils is the sort of movie that could lead to some deep thinking long after it ends.
The Five Devils opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday, March 24, 2023, at Bytowne Cinema in Ottawa on April 7, The Cinematheque in Winnipeg on April 8, Metro Cinema in Edmonton on April 11, Sudbury Indie Cinema in Sudbury and VIFF Centre in Vancouver on April 14, and Revue Cinema in Toronto on April 28. It also starts streaming exclusively on MUBI beginning May 12.
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