The Five Devils: a beguiling magical-realist coming-of-age story

With its rich 35mm cinematography and its sensitivity to the transportive powers of smell, Léa Mysius's second feature is a sensuous exploration of tight-knit family and community relationships, particularly the bond between mother and daughter.

27 October 2022

By John Bleasdale

Adèle Exarchopoulos as Joanne in The Five Devils (2022)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2022 Bergen International Film Festival.

Of the five senses, smell might be the most impoverished when it comes to the vocabulary we have to describe it. But then, most of us aren’t like young Vicky (Sally Dramé): a little girl with an olfactory sense so acute it’s tantamount to a superpower. She can smell plastic, dead birds, and the whiff of her mum Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos) from twenty meters away. With her collection of jars, Vicky witchily mixes potions to create smells so powerful that they can knock her out and send her into the past.

Vicky is very close to her mother, regularly visiting her at the swimming pool where she works. Joanne used to be a gymnast, and still goes for bracing twenty-minute swims in a lake in the mountains, with Vicky at the bank timing her with a stopwatch. Joanne has a somewhat dulled marriage with Vicky’s dad, Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue), a fireman with a penchant for long silences. The family’s situation is complicated by the arrival of Jimmy’s alcoholic sister Julia (Swala Emati). All three adults share an initial, immediately suggesting a claustrophobic proximity, and Joanne is initially hostile.

It’s obvious that something dreadful has occurred in their past. Julia has a bad reputation in the village, and Joanne’s workmate and friend Nadine (Daphne Patakia) bears burn scars that hint at a dark incident. Disturbed by the change in family dynamics at home, and protective of her mother, Vicky starts to use her skills and her set of labeled jars to learn about Joanne’s past and to seek to understand the present.

Léa Mysius’s new film plays like a bleaker extension of Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman (2021), enlisting a magical realist dimension to explore the relationships in a tight-knit family, particularly between mother and daughter. Exarchopoulos is as brilliant as ever as a loving but perennially preoccupied mother, a woman who has sunk into domesticity prematurely. Joanne hasn’t settled down, she’s retreated – and her daughter somehow senses that she is part of that compromise. Vicky struggles to sniff out, literally, what is behind her mother’s and her aunt’s unhappiness, even as the hostility between them begins to thaw. Cinematographer Paul Guilhaume, shooting in 35mm, captures the cold blues of the wintry mountain community, but is also alert to the sensuous world that Vicky is soaking up. Some mysteries are revealed, others fall through the gaps, but Mysius has created a beguiling coming-of-age story that seeks to bridge the generation gap with a very ordinary physical magic.

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