Directed by Léa Mysius, this quirky fantasy thriller uses a magical sense of smell to take you back and forth in the narrative, peppered with friendship and queer romance
Sally Dramé in The Five Devils
Last Updated: 02.30 AM, May 14, 2023
STORY: Just when Vicky and her mother Joanne were slowly discovering the former’s elemental power of smell, Julia arrives with a stinky past that engulfs everyone.
REVIEW: If you are familiar with French filmmaker Léa Mysius’ rather distinctive cinematic style and narrative technique - the most prominent example being the 2021 romance-drama movie Paris, 13th District, a collaboration with filmmaker Jacques Audiard - you wouldn’t probably be surprised by the treatment of her latest fantasy-drama film The Five Devils. Layered and nuanced but also outlandish, the director-screenwriter dovetails lesbian love with existential realities that often fails to circumvent. What lingers, however, is a dose of fatal potions.
This is the story of little Vicky Soler (Sally Dramé), who is either at school or tagging along with her mother Joanne Soler (Adèle Exarchopoulos) to the pool, where she teaches water aerobics to a batch of elderly women. Joanne is a former gymnast and beauty pageant winner, who seems to be living a strange half life with her husband Jimmy Soler (Moustapha Mbengue) - a firefighter. Originally from Senegal, Jimmy has now settled in Isère, near the French Alps. The setting complements the disquieting gloominess of the psychodrama.
That said, what hits you like a thunderbolt is Vicky’s über strong olfactory sense. So much so that she can smell her mother from yards away as easily as she catches the whiff of the swimming pool’s chlorinated water and coffee stained pages of an old journal, even when she is blindfolded. This little girl also whips up strange concoctions and stores them in tiny glass jars in her room, some of which are so powerful that they can uncannily transport her to her parents’ past, just magically!
Meanwhile, Joanne - who also enjoys taking a swim in the icy cold water of the lake - seems to share a rather apathetic relationship with her father, which hints at her troubled early years. Things, however, take a more smelly turn when one fine day Vicky’s paternal aunt Julia Soler (Swala Emati) arrives at the valley town. Now back from a stint in jail, she was earlier also exiled after a horrific incidence of pyromania that altered all their lives forever. Also entangled in their whirlwind past is Joanne’s friend Nadine (Daphné Patakia) and Jimmy’s acquaintance Jeff (Hugo Dillon).
Now, Julia’s smell is leading Vicky to unwittingly have visions of the past, and she obviously takes a dislike to her aunt. That and Julia’s strange encounters with Joanne nudge Vicky to constantly ask her mother for reassurance of her love toward her child. She even whips up a special concoction of a dead crow and urine in a bid to scare off her ‘strange’ aunt. Although not very apparent, you cannot miss the message of racism and homophobia swirling around the narrative.
VERDICT: Not unmissable if you want to steer clear of eccentric dramas that leave you befuddled. But The Five Devils - currently streaming on MUBI India - is not all about peculiarities in a sombre setting. The director also dishes out a story of desire, prejudice, compassion, love and friendship, serving as a vent for those who carry the baggage of their past all their lives. The 96-minute French fantasy-thriller film slowly unravels a mysterious story of family secrets and queer romance, worth taking a whiff of at least once. Also, Sally and Adèle are simply stupendous!
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