The Five Devils (Les Cinq Diables): BFI Flare 2023 review

Year: 2023

Runtime: 103 minutes

Director: Lea Mysius

Writers: Paul Guilhaume, Lea Mysius

Actors: Adele Exarchopoulos, Sally Dramé, Moustapha Mbengue, Swala Emati, Daphne Patakia, Hugo Dillon

By Sarah Manvel

This is an unusual and unusually disturbing movie for reasons that are very hard to articulate without spoilers. Without going into too many details, it boils down to a family being trapped in a time loop because of a little girl’s sense of smell. It’s strange and certainly unique, but the way in which it is disturbing makes it difficult to say whether or not it is good.

Vicky (Sally Dramé) is eight and being brought up in a mountainous region of the south of France. Her mother Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos) manages the local sports center, which gives the movie its name, and teaches the aquazumba classes; her father Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue) is a paramedic/firefighter (in France the roles are combined). Their relationship is drifting, which means Vicky is spending extra time with Joanne, most notably when she goes wild swimming in a cold lake near the village. One afternoon Vicky happens to mention how keen her sense of smell is; to Joanne’s alarm, she can track her through the woods while blindfolded and identify what woodland creature bit a discarded stick. But if you think that’s disturbing: Vicky also creates scents in old jam jars that capture a person’s essence, and with one sniff she’s capable of transporting herself into the memories of the person whose essence she smelled. This means she’s able to watch how her parents met, when Joanne was a teenager and Jimmy was the older brother of Julia (Swala Emati), who joins Joanne’s gymnastics team. But Vicky’s presence in the memories does not go unremarked, and that has consequences.

That is the movie’s fatal flaw, as the logistics of time travel usually require some exposition to make it plain what can or can’t happen. Even when a movie isn’t blessed with a Basil à la the Austin Powers movies, it makes no sense that the adult who’s figured it out would keep their mouth shut. There is a complex and serious incident at the heart of the film which permanently altered four lives – Joanne’s childhood friend Nadine (Daphne Patakia), who also works at the leisure center, was also affected – as well as led to Vicky’s conception. Director Léa Mysius, who cowrote the script with cinematographer Paul Guilhaume, should have done a little more explaining, if only to ensure the questions around the plotting didn’t become the main thing we remember.

The movie has a terrible air of foreboding despite the lack of direct physical violence. Part of that is the mountainous setting and Mr Guilhaume’s muted, distant work. Part of that is the racism of the kids at Vicky’s school, where she is the only mixed-race child and her appalling nickname is common knowledge. Part of that is the arrival of Julia at the house, against Joanne’s wishes. After a ten-year absence she shows up with a black eye; Vicky has never previously met her and not even Jimmy directly explains what went wrong. Other unanswered questions also hang in the air, as Vicky witnesses events she doesn’t understand and remarks on the current temper within the home. Sometimes she boils dead birds down to the bones in their backyard, too.

As ever Ms Excharopoulos carries the movie with ease. There is literally nothing she cannot do and her confident physicality is essential for the part of an active woman who must start using her words, which is not her preference. Miss Bramé is a real discovery, with an alarming screen presence and a disturbing air of watchfulness; she can sneak into a room, or a memory, as easily as a dinosaur. Ms Emati has less to do, though the plot twist that brought the movie to BFI Flare unfolds wonderfully, and is handled in a realistically indirect way. But the more you think about the plot of “The Five Devils” the more disturbing it is. By its “Appointment in Samarra” style logic, the future is already here and nothing anyone does can change it, because the change has already happened. It’s a message all the more disturbing because it’s probably unintentional. This means the movie cannot strictly be recommended, but as an atmosphere piece it definitely lingers. 

PS: This critic attended a screening where Ms Mysius spoke about the choice to let Vicky’s hair look as visually different as possible from Joanne’s, but without any of the sensitivity a non-white director might bring to the discussion of what hair means to women and girls of color, especially those with white mothers. Considering she mentioned her costume designer spent months fretting about the color of a bathing suit, this is especially disappointing. 


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