Ones You Might Have Missed: The Five Devils
The second feature from Léa Mysius follows a young girl with a magical sense of smell
Our sense of smell affects how we experience the world. Whether it’s coffee, perfume, smoke from a fire, different scents can call up an old forgotten memory, can change your mood, and can even help you re-establish a bond with loved ones. A smell can get caught in our noses and keep the thoughts, memories, and people it conjures running, running through our heads. Our sense of smell, and the decline thereof, can affect our physical and emotional well-being, it can have a heavy impact on our decisions and our everyday safety.
At the center of The Five Devils is Vicky, (Sally Dramé) a cute, but creepy, kid with an acute and accurate sense of smell. She can smell her mother, Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos), in the middle of the woods—tracking her with her eyes closed. She can smell the coffee stains on an old journal, the whiff of chlorinated water on skin, booze packed in a suitcase. It’s this sense of smell that hovers and haunts Léa Mysius’ film, which is part queer love story, part supernatural mystery.
Vicky smells trouble when her estranged aunt, Julia (Swala Amati)—her father, Jimmy’s (Moustapaha Mbengue) sister— comes to town. Joanne demands Jimmy send her away, hinting at a past volatility that only later becomes clear. Julia was exiled after a breakdown of sorts that led to and outburst of pyromania. Joanne’s friend, Nadine (Daphné Patakia) was disfigured; Julia was locked up and became a pariah. With Julia back in town old passions are reignited, new tensions arise; townspeople warn Jimmy, and look askance at Joanne.
Vicky may not understand what the adults around are going through, but she can sniff out their emotions, she can sense their feelings. We experience everything through Vicky, and so we are kept at a distance. We are, like her, creeping through bushes, outside windows, to sneak a peek at the lives of these characters and this cloistered community. We watch as the sexual tension between Julia and Joanne grows (Exarchopoulos is, at all times, sleepy and sensual) apparent. And through Vicky, we travel to a woozy past where we see their relationship begin, we see the casual racism and homophobia of the town, the blaming of Julia for Joanne’s sexual orientation. The same bigotry and bullying that Vicky, in her time, suffers for being a multiracial child, and, like her aunt, a bit of a modern-day witch.
What the film lacks in “narrative” it makes up for in style. It relies (smartly) on quiet atmosphere, the use of color, physical and elemental embodiment as symbolism to get at these frictions: as an act of repression, Joanne swims in icy water each day; while the outcast Julia sets things alight. Like so many psychodramas, the characters are complex and complicated and quiet. There is so much left unsaid and unexplored—the lack of detailed dialogue allows for tensions to hang in a zone of discomfort. The Five Devils is in no hurry, and it feels no obligation to give the viewer an easy resolution. It is a sensitive, surreal film that, through the eyes of a child, examines motherhood and repressed love so that we understand that we really don’t understand at all.
Brock Kingsley is a writer, artist, critic, and educator living in Fort Worth, Texas. His work has appeared in publications such as Brooklyn Rail, Paste Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, Waxwing, and elsewhere. He is a regular contributor at the Chicago Review of Books.