VOD film review: The Five Devils
Matthew Turner | On 12, May 2023
Director: Léa Mysius
Cast: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Sally Dramé, Swala Emati, Moustapha Mbengue, Daphné Patakia, Patrick Bouchitey
The Five Devils is the second feature from French screenwriter-turned director Léa Mysius, who wrote Paris 13th District. Part love triangle drama and part supernatural mystery thriller, it’s consistently intriguing and enigmatic, though its refusal to clarify its own rules is occasionally frustrating.
Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Colour) stars as Joanne, a swimming instructor who lives in a small Alpine village with her firefighter husband, Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue), and their bi-racial, eight-year-old daughter Vicky (Sally Dramé). From the beginning, it’s clear to Vicky that her parents are going through something of a rough patch, and that only gets worse when Jimmy’s sister, Julia (Swala Emati), comes to stay with them, following a mysterious absence of several years.
To complicate things further, Vicky has a strange, possibly supernatural ability, whereby her hyper-acute sense of smell is capable of transporting her back in time, allowing her to witness events that happened before she was born. Accordingly, she creates her own potions to facilitate these visions, and when she uses items she finds in Julia’s possession, she begins to unravel the mystery surrounding her aunt’s connection to her parents and the traumatic incident in their past.
Exarchopoulos is terrific as Joanne, trapped in a heart-breaking situation where it’s impossible to please everyone, and the pursuit of her own desire could bring catastrophe. Accordingly, she generates strikingly different chemistry with each of her three co-stars, to intriguing effect.
Emati is equally good as Julia and there’s strong support from Benedetta’s Daphné Patakia as Nadine, a colleague of Joanne’s at the swimming pool, while Patrick Bouchitey makes a strong impression as Joanne’s alcoholic father. Similarly, Dramé has an engaging physical presence as Vicky, though her role is slightly under-served by the script, and it’s hard not to wish she’d been given a little more dialogue.
Mysius’ direction is alive to the sensual nature of Vicky’s powers, immersing the audience in her experience as faithfully as she can, at least without resorting to full-on Smell-O-Vision. Thematically, it’s a fascinating and logical extension of the fact that memory and scent are closely linked in our minds.
In pursuit of that idea, Mysius layers in a rich amount of physical detail that adds texture and atmosphere to each of Vicky’s visions, to the point where you practically recoil with her when she inhales one of her foul-smelling potions (one involves essence of dead crow). In addition, Paul Guilhaume’s stunning cinematography is strongly elemental, frequently contrasting images of fire, water and earth.
The film is further heightened by some exceptional sound design work and an unsettling, offbeat score by Florencia Di Concilio. Pleasingly, the soundtrack also makes room for a great karaoke scene, involving Exarchopoulos, Emati and a performance of Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart.
That’s not to say the film isn’t entirely without flaws. For one thing, it breaks the cardinal rule of time travel movies, by not clearly establishing the rules of what’s going on. For example, it’s never entirely clear if Vicky is physically travelling to the past (only one character appears to be able to see her when she does), or just experiencing the events as a vision while being unconscious in the present – either way, the dramatic and emotional impact is lessened as a result, as the film ultimately lacks the satisfying time travel moment of everything clicking into place.