Director Léa Mysius expertly crafts a queer, witchy thriller in her Directors’ Fortnight debut film The Five Devils (Les Cinq Diables), which received a five-minute standing ovation at its premiere screening. Mysius takes concepts like identity, sexuality and mysticism and creates an intricate genre film that’s part time travel, part romance, and all heart.
Vickey (Sally Dramé) is a mixed-race child growing up in a small town in France. She possesses a special gift: reproducing any scent from anything and anyone anywhere. She keeps these scents bottled up for reference. Her sense of smell is so sharp she can tell which animal licked a pine cone and could find her mother Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos) by smell even when she’s 20 feet away from her and covered up in foliage.
Joanne is a swim instructor and lifeguard who is in a loveless marriage with Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue). When his sister Julia (Swala Emati) shows up for a visit, the environment in the house becomes hostile. One day, Vickey gets the idea to re-create Julie’s scent, and when she does, she passes out and wakes up several years in the past as a bystander in get mother’s memories. The longer Julie stays at the house, the more Vickey begins to discover her family origins. The answers will be shocking enough for Vickey to question her existence and her mother’s love.
It’s not hard to catch on to the family secret, but the way the plot unfolds around said secret is truly stunning. At first, Vickey has nefarious reasons for wanting to get rid of Julie — it’s suspected she’s visiting to break up the family. But Vickey’s intense curiosity manifests a sense of hope within the people she loves after all is revealed. This train of thought is enhanced by cinematographer Paul Guilhaume who drenches the film in cold blue filters, but as the things move forward, colors become more vibrant, and people finally begin to let go of pretense.
Exarchopoulos gives the most emotionally vulnerable performance of her career as a caring mother lying to herself. She’s matured as an actress since Blue Is the Warmest Color, is very comfortable in her body, and is confident in her ability to deliver what is needed for the script. Newcomer Dramé steals the show as the expressive young child with a keen sense of smell. She is effortlessly cool with her kaleidoscope glasses watching the adults and their messy lives.
The Five Devils isn’t without its issues. There are many movies with Black protagonists at Cannes, but Black people direct none. Directors are trying to add more diversity to their content, which is commendable, but there’s still so much work to do to achieve proper representation on screen. Julia and Jimmy aren’t given much agency. They exist as a platform for Joanne, who uses them to elevate herself. They don’t get much of a say regarding the situation. They have to adjust to whatever Joanne is feeling.
And the hair. Look, Black hairstylists need to be consulted and hired to give Black characters decent-looking hairstyles. Unkempt hair and bad wigs plague Black actresses on sets, and The Five Devils falls into this trap. Films have to start investing in the complete aesthetic of Blackness, and that means getting people who can bring the most authenticity to a character.
In conclusion, the choices we make lead us down the path of meeting people who come in and out of our lives. But how do you expect to live a happy life if you’re never honest with yourself about who you really are? The Five Devils seek to expose the truth while covering topics that manage to make sincere, magical realist cinema with a message that the things we want will come to us, but only when we’re ready.