This extraordinary and rather wonderful film is co-written and directed by Léa Mysius as her second directorial feature. It was released in a handful of UK cinemas in March 2023 and is now being streamed on MUBI. She has also made significant contributions towards scripts for films such as Les Olympiades (France 2021), Les fantômes d’Ismaël (France 2017) and the latest Claire Denis film Stars at Noon (2022). The Press Pack for The Five Devils includes a long interview with Mysius in which she explains the gestation of the production and discusses several of the influences on the final film. The one that struck me most forcibly was David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (US 1990-91). This is odd because I didn’t watch the TV series but somehow I caught the ‘feel’ of the film by typesetting a lengthy article about it for a media education magazine and I do remember how it captivated audiences. Like Lynch’s film, The Five Devils is set in a small village in the mountains and injects what some reviewers have described as ‘magic realism’ into an intimate family drama.
Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a swimming instructor in the village indoor pool. She is also the mother of 10 year-old Vicky (Sally Dramé) and the wife of Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue). The opening scenes of the narrative reveal how much Vicky loves her mother while the marriage between Joanne and Jimmy (a firefighter) seems to have become bogged down. The inciting incident is the return of Jimmy’s sister Julia (Swala Emati), seemingly a damaged individual with a possible drink problem and a difficult past. Vicky senses Julia as a threat to Joanne’s happiness and decides to use her superpower – an advanced sense of smell – to find out more about Julia and possibly to drive her away.
Vicky is a fabulous character, a tiny child with a giant Afro and large eyes. She has terrific presence in any scene in which she appears, but she is shunned by most of the other children in the village school who taunt her with the name ‘Bog Brush’ (or ‘toilet brush’, a reference to her hair). Her control over smells means that she collects specific smells, trapping them in jars and labelling them for future use. Julia has a particularly strong smell and eventually Vicky discovers that by mixing Julia’s smell with others she can produce something so strong that it literally knocks out Vicky who then experiences a form of time travel that allows her to go back to earlier years in the lives of Joanne and Julia when they first met. This device is particularly unsettling in the narrative as at first the time shifts are clearly signalled but later the shifts appear to take place without any markers at all and this is perhaps an example of a genuine non-linear narrative.
This is a very ‘rich’ text. Generically it draws on a range of repertoires. Vicky is picked on and isolated in the school in ways familiar from bullying narratives in which she is a distinctly ‘other’ figure. At home she is in a form of melodrama. The setting is also full of cultural references. The outdoor scenes in the village were shot in Le Bourg-d’Oisans in Isère department and in long shots the unusual architecture of the buildings is perhaps reminiscent of German mountain films and even Expressionist films. The film was co-written and photographed by Paul Guilhaume, the director’s partner. I don’t know how it is achieved but the intense blues and whites of the the lake and snow-covered mountains is exaggerated and adds to the feel of the uncanny. Fans of celluloid will also be excited that the film was shot on 35mm (which added considerably to the budget). Jimmy and Julia are played by very dark-skinned actors who stand out in certain outdoor scenes, reminding me a little of scenes from John Akomfrah’s Nine Muses (UK 2010). The script is careful to explain that Jimmy came from Senegal to France when his accent was already developed whereas his sister Julia was born in France and she doesn’t have the accent. There are probably other references that pass those of us without sufficient knowledge of French accents and idioms.
I’m not going to spoil the narrative outcomes but I will point out that Léa Mysius says this at one point in her long interview in the Press Pack:
. . . like many feminists today, I am haunted by the figure of the witch and the undefeated power of women. Without desiring to exclude men: even if they are in the background, I try to propose an alternative to the traditional male role.
Vicky is in some ways the most important character and the narrative does explore her quest which in a sense is to discover how she came to be here. Mysius also points out that the film is elemental. Joanne is associated with the lake and the pool, Jimmy is a fireman and Vicky’s creation of smells involves earth and air.
All the performances are excellent. Adèle Exarchopoulos stands out as the star but the other three main roles are filled by actors with less or no experience and the rise to the challenge. There is also a small but important role for Daphné Patakia, who made a splash in Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta (2021).
There is a lot more to say about the film but I would need to watch it again several times. Léa Mysius is another of the highly talented and creative young women trained at Le fémis and making a name for herself. Like several of her generation she seems to pick up ideas and influences from a wide range of sources. Her ideas about Vicky were also inspired by The Tin Drum, The Shining and Children of Men. She didn’t know the Isère district but wanted to find a contrast to her first film set by the beach and the sea. The locations were found by her sister Esther Mysius, the Production Designer on the film. Léa’s aim was to challenge the rise of the far right in France by creating a story which includes a mixed race family and a same sex relationship in this particular environment. I think I’m now going to watch her first film also currently on MUBI. MUBI titles are also available via Amazon Prime I think.