Directed by Léa Mysius | Written by Mysius and Paul Guilhaume | 95 min | ▲▲▲▲△ | Carbon Arc Cinema
Here’s an odd one, but a film that is certain to tickle the fancy of anyone who has time for a little magic realism and the strange, intangible connections between a mother, daughter, and aunt. The Five Devils is a unique French film with notes of gothic thriller and queer romance, but deftly manages not to commit to any particular genre or style — more to its credit.
We’re in mountainous Grenoble, which through these cameras reminds me a lot of the interior of British Columbia. The mood here is haunted and damp, great use of locations. Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos of Blue Is The Warmest Colour) is a big lake swimmer who’s tight with her daughter, Vicky (Sally Dramé), though perhaps less so with her husband, Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue).
Vicky has a startlingly powerful olfaction — in one scene she tracks her mother in the forest using only her nose. This extraordinary gift doesn’t seem to be a shock to Mom — there’s an odd level of acceptance in the face of this almost supernatural occurence. What Joanne isn’t accepting or happy about is the sudden appearance of Jimmy’s sister, Julia (Swala Emati), who’s been out of their lives for awhile. She and Joanne have a history, though at first it’s unclear what happened between them.
The rest of the film is the revelation of that history and how it resonates in the present. How that past is illustrated involves Vicky and her special skills, which it turns out go a lot further than just a sensitive sense of smell and extend into what could be called witchcraft.
How she’s able to understand what happened between her mother and aunt some years before she was born takes a suspension of disbelief with which fans of fantasy will have no trouble. That this indie picture has few of the genre’s stylistic hallmarks might throw some in the audience who are unprepared, but it doesn’t really take much to embrace its vision. That’s got a lot to do with the magnetic Dramé, who gives a performance of serious commitment for a child actor. Just try to take your eyes off her as she works her (various kinds of) magic.
What The Five Devils does well is use its fantastic story elements to tease out a theme of parental responsibility versus being true to one’s self, all overlaid by anxiety around racism and homophobia in French society. As Vicky starts to understand who her mother was before she came along, we also get a sense of the decisions Joanne has made to give her life some stability, along with the costs and genuine rewards of said decision.
I’d be lying if I said the film made sense in its every scene, but as an unusual delivery method for a few strong ideas it’s something of a marvel.