Her first film as director since 2017’s heady study of adolescence, Ava, Léa Mysius’ latest is an oft-gripping magical-realist mystery drama with faint whiffs of horror. While The Five Devils doesn’t quite have the clarity of vision of her previous picture, its emotion, erotically-charged themes and puzzle-box structure leave much to recommend.
Of the five senses, smell is said to be the most powerful sense in evoking memories. No more so does this apply than to young schoolgirl Vicky (Sally Dramé), whose sense of smell is so extraordinary that by mixing decoctions that replicate the aromas of people she knows, she is able to engage in a sort-of memory-based time travel. Using their scents, Vicky discovers that she is able to travel to specific points others’ their lives, haunting their memories like a ghost from the future.
Those memories belong to her Aunt Julia (Swala Emati), until recently estranged from Vicky’s parents Jimmie (Moustapha Mbengue) and Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and the apparent author of a devastating injury suffered by Joanne’s colleague and friend Nadine (Daphné Patakia). When Julia arrives to stay with her brother Jimmie – much to Joanne’s consternation – she recognises Vicky straight away as the spectral girl who has haunted her throughout her life, even though from Vicky’s perspective she has only recently started experimenting with her strange gift.
When handled skilfully, the mileage in such narrative devices is considerable. Here, Mysius marshals her film’s time-travel hook to balance both the mystery and the human drama, both of which are driven by the nature of the relationship between Joanne, Julia and Jimmie, and exactly how Julia came to cause the fire that burned Nadine. Although The Five Devils stops short at tipping into horror itself, Paul Guilhame’s (previously working with Mysius on Ava) rich, high-contrast cinematography evokes the psychological horror of the 1970s, while Vicky’s pseudo-witchcraft and the film’s broader themes of sexuality, transgression and betrayal certainly draw from the same well as other contemporary Gothic fables such as Border, Raw or Let The Right One In.
A bullying subplot with Vicky is certainly reminiscent of the latter film, though it’s unclear how it connects to The Five Devils’ wider narrative or thematic concerns. Indeed, this points to a broader problem with the film’s treatment of Vicky as a plot device or lens through which to understand the three central adult characters. Vicky may be the girl with all the gifts, but it is Jimmie, Julia and Joanne who are afforded all the meaningful development and depth. Moreover, once we reach the centre of the narrative maze and discover the moment that has defined these characters’ lives, the catharsis doesn’t extend much beyond the satisfaction of seeing the last piece of the jigsaw slotting into place.
More successful is Mysius’ recurring use of fire and water imagery: at opposite ends, Julia is associated with a devastating fire, Joanne works in a swimming pool, in the middle Jimmie is a firefighter. Such imagery – and the messy love triangle that it represents – is much harder to pin down than a jigsaw-shaped narrative, but ultimately far richer and more satisfying.