Léa Mysius’ The Five Devils is an incandescent and stunning drama about broken hearts, with a fiery Adèle Exarchopoulos performance at its core.
Although The Five Devils (Les Cinq Diables) is Léa Mysius’ first film in five years, after her captivating feature-length debut Ava in 2017, the French filmmaker has collaborated in many screenplays during that lengthy gap. She has worked with some of France’s greatest and most renowned talents, like Jacques Audiard (Paris 13th District), Arnaud Desplechin (Ismael’s Ghosts), and Claire Denis (Stars at Noon). These are three different features, both thematically and stylistically, although contained through French cinema’s dramatic and romantic sensibilities. And it is fascinating to see how Mysius doesn’t contain herself to one specific writing technique, as these three features demonstrate her versatility. The visions and styles of those aforementioned directors have forged her path to her latest film.
The film immediately engages the viewer as hell breaks loose. You hear traumatic screams from a group of gymnasts wearing sparkling outfits as a building burns. A woman, Joanne Soler (the outstanding Adèle Exarchopoulos, who always impresses me), turns around. She’s crying from the disaster that has taken place – her eyes tell the entire story. The past holds her hostage, and she knows what caused this. This short, albeit impressive introduction to the film is shot like a horror film, one of the many tricks that Mysius presents in The Five Devils. Dread, passion, and beauty are present in that still image of Joanne crying as the background descends into agony. It offers a fragmented view of the narrative. Past and present intertwine with one another as the runtime flows, slowly making the viewer put the pieces of the puzzle together.
It turns out that those initial moments were “just a dream”, although without the clichéd connotation of that classic narrative decision. A young girl named Vicky (brilliant newcomer Sally Dramé) was having a nightmare about her mother, Joanne. From the moment she awakens, Vicky senses that something’s wrong. The dream felt too real for her to ignore. Something ignited a spark in her that caused such visions to feel like reality. Regardless, Vicky goes along with her day, spending time at the local public pool where her mother works. Joanne and Vicky, alongside their firefighter husband/father Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue), live a peaceful and quiet life up in the mountains. That tranquil lifestyle is imprinted onto Vicky, as she spends much time watching her parents’ every move and roaming through the woods, making weird concoctions.
Those concoctions serve a purpose: Vicky has a mysterious gift where she can recreate any scent she comes across, even of her relatives. When her mother notices this ability, she’s notably disturbed by it all. But Joanne is worried about too many other things, particularly the appearance of Vicky’s estranged aunt Julia (Swala Emati) into town, that she doesn’t give it much attention. Because of this odd sensation she’s feeling once Julia arrives oozing from her mother, Vicky decides to learn more about her aunt and her connection with Joanne. She begins to snoop around in her stuff, and the invocation of Julia’s fragrance makes her faint. This sends Vicky back in time to unravel the secretive past between her aunt and mother, filled with romance and betrayal.
This is where she begins to gather pieces of an enigmatic puzzle, later proving that the visions she has had before were memories from Joanne’s life – ten years before Vicky was born. In essence, The Five Devils (Les Cinq Diables) is a story about a young girl whose special gift helps her learn more about her mother’s secret history. Vicky’s ability to recreate people’s aromas allows the film to explore scent memory and how specific smells remind us of moments, people, places, or things we have encountered. The aromas take us back to an experience, almost as if we faint briefly as we recall those moments. One of the points that Mysius wants to present to the audience is that scents can preserve long-lost memories.
Mysius implements those minor fantasy elements to further elaborate on the current cinematic pet topic of parents’ past lives. In these past few years, we have seen the likes of Aftersun, Petite Maman, and The Lost Daughter, all of which brilliantly and uniquely explore that theme. And although The Five Devils is not as good or thematically hefty as those three films, the amalgamation of genre blends and stylistic choices that Mysius delivers in her latest work amuses the viewer to a high degree. The Five Devils presents this idea about understanding our guardians even though, at one point, we were too young to comprehend their feelings. It is a fascinating topic that can be explored in various ways. Still, Mysius chooses a haunting and ambitious route to discuss the importance and emotions of the people we care for most.
The cinematography by Paul Guilhaume provides a hallucinatory sensation in every frame, which adds to the element of the interconnection between past and present. The misty haze from the mountains also adds to this sensory experience because the film often feels like a blur. The flair from Mysius’ direction pops from the screen, engrossing us with every single swing the narrative takes. The film divides itself into two halves with different tones regarding the cast’s portrayal of their characters. The first half has a melodramatic tone, where Mysius still remains organic and grounded amidst the sensationalized emotions. In the second half, it always feels as if the characters, apart from Vicky, are on the verge of blowing up to their emotional angst – the fire within them burns to the point where they can’t contain it.
Although those two halves have a wide emotional disparity, you can relate to the characters’ feelings and decisions. This thriving division of the film can not only be accredited to Mysius but to the cast as well, primarily the powerful cinematic force that is Adèle Exarchopoulos. In her many years as an actress, Exarchopoulos has demonstrated that she is a chameleon: she can adapt to every role and genre imaginable. I honestly believe Exarchopoulos is one of the best French actresses working today because she’s effortlessly magnetic. Dramé, Emati, and Mbengue are also excellent and very engaging, as well as Daphné Patakia in her short screentime, but the images that stay in your mind at the end of the day revolve around Exarchopoulos.
Although I connected with the story, I think some viewers may feel detached due to how some of its themes tie together. The ideas about parents’ pasts lives are done fluently and carefully, where some of the film’s ideas come together quite heavy-handedly. We never know the specific meaning behind Vicky’s ability or whether it is more than a reflection of the love for her mother. It sometimes feels like The Five Devils could be separated into two separate films, one that focuses on Joanne and Julie’s past and another that shines a light on their current lives. Regardless, I’m surprised that all of these complex narrative devices and techniques used in The Five Devils managed to work out in the end.
In the hands of another director, particularly one who dwells in excess and non-humanistic emotional dispositions, it might not have had the same emotional and thematic outcome. The Five Devils (Les Cinq Diables) is a delightful and touching puzzle that the audience pieces together alongside Vicky. Léa Mysius’ latest is a kaleidoscopic and ambitious project that recalls themes we have seen before, yet in an innovative way that makes an impact and leaves an impression regarding the French filmmaker’s talent.
The Five Devils was screened at Film at Lincoln Center’s “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2023” on March 4-8, 2023. The film is coming soon to the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Germany, Turkey, India and Latin America.