Léa Mysius’ highly-anticipated follow-up to her acclaimed 2017 coming-of-age drama, ‘Ava’ sees the writer-director explore various genres in ‘The Five Devils,’ which was nominated in last year’s Cannes for the Queer Palm prize, even though it lost to Saim Sadiq’s ‘Joyland.’ Among the genres in question includes the time-travel element, but it was not something that you would usually expect: a sense of smell.
A young girl named Vicky, played by newcomer Sally Dramé has the unique superpower-like ability to transport her into the past whenever she smells her collection of mason jars filled with concoctions of someone’s belongings, to be exact. Every jar had labels with names on them, and she would mix and brew the likes of perfume and such like a magical potion of sorts. Think of her as a witch but without the usual getup.
Like the first ‘Back to the Future’ revolving around Marty McFly traveling back to 1955 to witness his parents’ past during their high school years, ‘The Five Devils’ echoes a similar narrative pattern here. Except for Vicky, the result of her concoction sends her back into the past to see what’s going on between her mother (Adèle Exarchopoulos’ Joanne), father (Moustapha Mbengue’s Jimmy), and visiting aunt, Julia (Swala Emati). From there, she finds out that her mom and aunt used to have an illicit past when they were younger.
The movie also touches on Vicky’s story on the present-day timeline as we learn about her being an outcast in school and her classmates often bullying and mocking her big hairstyle as a ‘toilet brush.’ Then, there’s the story about her mom and dad’s somewhat estranged and passionless relationship. Another one involved Joanne’s friend and colleague, Nadine (Daphné Patakia), whose partially-scarred face concerns a school arson.
Juggling multiple narratives between the past and present-day storylines while mixing genres from the time-travel elements to a mystery (the arson part hinted at the beginning of the movie) and drama about family dynamics, bisexual relationships (Joanne, Julia, and Jimmy), and forbidden love between Joanne and Julia is no easy feat. And as much as I admire Mysius trying her best to tie everything together, the movie is spotty in places.
For instance, Vicky’s unusual sense of smell that allows her to ‘travel’ back in time may have been conceptually interesting. Still, it’s all perfunctorily told without delving deep into her character arc, meaning we just have to accept it as it is. She’s pretty much a MacGuffin mainly served as a fancy way of showcasing numerous flashbacks and memories of Joanne and Julia’s past in their younger days as teenagers secretly in love.
The arson-related mystery angle is all tease, but the payoff isn’t as compelling as I thought it would be once the story reveals what caused the school fire in the first place. Some of the other side-story bits, like the one where Vicky becomes a victim of racial abuse for her being a mixed-race child, are nothing more than a superficial add-on just to spice up the overall story.
Still, ‘The Five Devils’ remains curiously watchable from start to end, thanks to Mysius’ absorbing direction. She may have been on the wobbly side when comes to the storytelling department, but she sure knows how to turn her movie into a visually atmospheric genre-bending drama. With the help of Paul Guilhaume’s trance-like cinematography and some stunning visuals, notably the beautifully rustic and wintry landscape of the Isère location in France, the movie exudes an ethereal and alluring sense of quality like we are watching a fairy tale. Not to mention the brilliant use of the traditional 35mm allows Guilhaume to capture the rich visual textures and tones of the movie.
Florencia Di Concilio’s score is equally worth mentioning here, all suitably moody and eclectic that fits the magical-realist touch in ‘The Five Devils.’ The movie also features a somewhat intoxicating scene of Joanne and Julia singing a karaoke rendition of Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart.’ The ‘80s power ballad is used to good effects to convey the underlying passion and emotion between these two. If only the karaoke performance was as captivating as the story of their queer romance, that would help elevates ‘The Five Devils’ in its storytelling part.
Speaking of Joanne and Julia, Adèle Exarchopoulos delivers an engaging lead turn as the emotionally conflicted Joanne. Beyond her magnetic beauty that made Exarchopoulos such a standout in the Palme d’Or-winning ‘Blue Is the Warmest Colour’ ten years ago, she continues to prove her worth as among the best French actresses of today’s generation who is more than just a pretty face. Her co-star, Swala Emati, playing her ex-lover, Julia, is just as praiseworthy, and the same also goes for Sally Dramé. The latter may have been a first-time actress, but she still manages to stand out on her own, even acting alongside someone as acclaimed as Exarchopoulos.