A family’s quiet mountain life is disrupted by the arrival of a relative in Lea Mysius’ beguiling second feature.
The past lives of parents are having a moment on screen. In both the arthouse world, with the likes of Céline Sciamma’s delicate Petite Maman, and the mainstream sphere, with Disney and Pixar’s delightful Turning Red, understanding who our guardians were before we existed seems to have become a favoured narrative. In Director’s Fortnight offering The Five Devils, director Lea Mysius follows suit, crafting an intriguing yet overstuffed tale of family mystery and fantasy.
The Soler family live a relatively quiet life in their isolated mountain village. Joanne, played by a brilliant Adèle Exarchopoulos, is a former gymnast who now works at a leisure centre. Her marriage to fireman Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue) is strained and they have grown distant over the years; Joanne drifts through her days with little to relieve the numbness she seems to feel about her life. It’s ironic, then, that her attempt at self-care involves wild swimming in freezing cold water where her heart could stop if she were to stay longer than twenty minutes.
The film’s enigmatic genre turn revolves around their young daughter, Vicky (Sally Dramé), and her unnervingly good sense of smell. She stores scents in jars for future reference – notably her mother’s, which lingers on the grease she uses to keep warm in the water – and can sniff out even the subtlest of odours. The racist bullying Vicky faces at school leaves her lonely and solitary, seeking comfort in her parents alone.
But the arrival of Jimmy’s sister Julia (Swala Emati), who has been mysteriously absent for a decade, causes a rupture for Vicky. Her parents seem different, tenser at Julia’s arrival, and she will soon discover her own hidden connection to her aunt that may have set tragedy in motion well before she was even born.
Mysius’ film is so filled with complex ideas that it feels like the central narrative strands could have been split into totally separate projects – one following the thorny romantic history between Joanna and Julia before the former married the latter’s brother, and another diving further into the puzzle of Vicky’s powers. The combination of the two here results in a muddled narrative that feels stilted in pacing, clunky in editing.
When Vicky discovers that a certain smell will plunge her into the past, where only Julia can see her, she begins to unravel the secrets that plague their family and the wider community. The notion that scents can be transportive, that scent-memory is incredibly powerful, has clear emotional resonance but there is a subtlety missing to weave these narratives together elegantly. From Vicky’s perspective in the past, the detail and sentiment needed to really develop Julia and Joanne’s bond, to give weight to Julia’s fears, and to give the film’s climax greater depth is really lacking.
Still, the filmmaker’s ambition and flair for the strange (as also seen in her bold debut feature Ava) is admirable and gives The Five Devils an eerily curious quality. There are moments of visual adventurousness, particularly during a kaleidoscopic karaoke scene, and the original music by Florencia Di Concilio creates a striking atmosphere and tone. Yet, overall, the clashing ideas leave this feeling a little too heavy-handed and uncontrolled to be totally immersive.
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Published 23 May 2022
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