THE FIVE DEVILS – Review by Nadine Whitney

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The Soler family live in a picturesque town in the French Alps. Joanne Soler (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and her fire fighter husband Jimmy (Moustapha Mbenge) have an eight-year-old daughter, Vicky (Sally Dramé) who is a curious child with a preternatural sense of smell. Joanne is a former beauty queen and gymnast and currently works in the sporting center (named Les Cinque Diables) conducting water aerobics and acting as general manager. There is a palpable sense of discontent in Joanne who takes herself out for punishing swims in the freezing water and is disconnected from Jimmy. Vicky feels her mother’s unhappiness, in fact she can smell it, but doesn’t know what to do. All she can manage is to cling to Joanne as hard as she can in the hopes that her mother’s love for her is as strong as her own.

Unexpectedly Vicky’s aunt, Julia (Swala Emati) comes back into the lives of the Soler family. No one in the town wants her there, especially not Nadine (Daphne Patakia) who works with Joanne at the center and Joanne’s father (Patrick Bouchitay). Joanne herself is enraged that Jimmy would allow Julia into their lives. The question is why. The answer lies with Vicky and her uncanny ability to capture people’s scents and conjure the past through the process.

Julia’s scent is a mixture of peat whiskey (which she drinks to excess if she has the chance) and the aroma from a mysterious bottle. Like a tiny witch, Vicky brews the scent and it transports her back in time to when her mother and Julia were seventeen and deeply in love. The younger Julia can see Vicky during her excursions into the past and feels like she is being haunted by a little girl and it’s driving her mad. The circular nature of the narrative written by director Léa Mysius in conjunction with cinematographer Paul Guilhaume (whose work shooting the film is exquisite) gives the audience a sense of the future haunting the past. Vicky feels she is fighting for her very existence – if Joanne had not married Jimmy then she would have never been born. Vicky only has her parents; she is relentlessly bullied by the local children who call her “toilet brush” and “cobweb sweeper” in a racist reaction to her mixed Senegalese French heritage.

Something terrible happened that led to Julia being imprisoned and declared insane. It also scarred Nadine for life. The first shot of the film references it but Mysius and Guilhaume make the audience move backwards through Vicky’s visitations to understand what has caused Julia to be a pariah and the quiet burden Joanne daily wears.

Blending supernatural elements to tell the story of consuming love The Five Devils is a seductive and uneasy mystery that encompasses racism and homophobia, as well as the sadness that two people face when they are in a marriage that suits neither of them. Vicky just wants to know if her mother loves her and if Joanne ever loved Jimmy – a natural (but exaggerated) position for a child of eight to be in.

Adèle Exarchopoulos and Swala Emati slip easily between playing their teen and adult selves, but it is newcomer Sally Dramé who hypnotises as the eerie Vicky. Moustapha Mbenge gives a subtle and restrained performance as Jimmy, a man who knows that his family is constantly on edge and that he will never quite fulfil Joanne’s needs and desires.

The Five Devils is Léa Mysius’ second feature after Ava in 2017. Mysius is a seasoned film writer who has worked on numerous scripts including Claire Denis’ Stars at Noon and also Paris, 13th District and Ishmael’s Ghosts. Her skills as a director are in full force in The Five Devils. Mysius and Guilhaume’s visuals are striking and haunting and complement the strangeness of their script.

The Five Devils is a disturbing but breath-taking film that embodies the need for love, true love, from numerous angles. The plot may feel a little discombobulated at times, but it has a solid internal logic that speaks to the loneliness of being an outsider and what it means to understand that you are loved unconditionally.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Five Devils played at Cannes in 2022. It won an award at Fantastic Fest. It is distributed by MUBI and will soon be available to stream in selected territories.

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney is a seasoned film critic and scholar. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Nadine contributes regularly to FILMINK, The Curb, and Mr Movies Film Blog. She holds a degree in cinema theory and cultural studies. Her specialty is surrealism in cinema. She is as passionate about cats as she is about film. She is co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association and a member of FIPRESCI.