The Five Devils review

The Five Devils is sensual, supernatural and a bit too superficial

3 out of 5 stars

What’s immediately striking about The Five Devils, the latest film from French filmmaker Léa Mysius, is the quality of the image. The movie is shot on grainy, over-saturated 35mm, and the viewer is drawn into a sensual world. The intense sensations, the distorting ripples of heat, an icy lake and a rapturous, forbidden love affair overshadow the film’s elliptical plot. As seen through the point of view of Vicky, a strange child with magical abilities, her peaceful life with her mother Joanne and father Jimmie is disrupted when Vicky’s aunt Julia arrives after being released from prison. 

From the film’s onset, tragedy hangs on the edges of the frame. A horrific event that unfolded years earlier has gripped the small town. We see flashes of a red-faced Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos), glowing in a silver costume, in front of flames. One of her colleagues at a swimming pool has burns along the whole side of her face and body. With the arrival of Julia, people speak of her in hushed tones. She’s psychotic and dangerous. Soft-spoken and reserved, it isn’t easy to reconcile how others describe her with how she behaves, at least at first.

As seen through Vicky’s eyes, the world is abundant. Vicky has an intense sense of smell, tested early on by Joanne in the woods, by the water. Blindfolded, the small child can follow her mother’s scent, even discovering her under a pile of evergreens. She collects scents and artifacts in jars and engages in vaguely magical activities. At school, Vicky is bullied; framed as an outsider, not to be welcomed into the fold. Transcending the limits of the natural world, Vicky can travel through time and space as a witness to dark memories of the past. Sally Dramé’s first performance on the big screen grounds the film in a kind of unblinking gaze.

Taken as individual elements, impulses of performances, striking images and a banging soundtrack, The Five Devils is very effective. In some ways, the film feels like a catch-all of popular French arthouse film tropes: non-linear structure, lesbian romance, firefighters and a karaoke scene for good measure. As an overall experience, however, the film never manages to be more than the sum of its parts. Though inventive, the writing needs a greater investigation into its many ideas. While there’s something to be said about leaving things to the viewer’s imagination, the film asks far more questions than it’s prepared to answer. 

The film’s supernatural elements, including Vicky’s ability to time travel, feel largely unanswered. As Vicky goes deeper into the memories of her mother and aunt, it’s clear that she’s not just a spectral witness but flesh and blood. Her presence in these memories haunts Julia, driving her into a kind of psychosis, culminating in the act of seemingly irrational and destructive violence. Yet, these little adventures into memory only invite questions about how things work, how real these journeys are and why or how Vicky’s time-travelling methods also impact those around her. 

Though those questions linger, the film overall feels slight. It doesn’t have much to say about the pressures of being queer or, conversely, the pressures of conforming to social expectations. Though touched upon vaguely, the question of race also feels like an afterthought. The insults other children lob at Vicky are racialized. Jimmie talks about immigrating from Senegal. Visually, his family stands out in the primarily white town. As a white woman navigating this family unit, Joanne never seems to reflect on what pressures her Black family members may be going through. If she stands by them, it’s with little understanding of their experience. The script positions its Black characters as sources of magical abilities and, visually, as outsiders. It doesn’t, however, consider their lived experiences in any real way. Like much of the film’s approach, it privileges aesthetic over spiritual or philosophical considerations.

There’s still a lot to like in The Five Devils. It’s visually stunning, and the performances are passionate and enigmatic. There’s intrigue in its strange details, even if they don’t coalesce into something more impactful. The film’s sensuality is persuasive in its own way. With a runtime of just over 90 minutes, it’s just long enough to allow yourself to be seduced by its beauty: just don’t spend too much time thinking about it afterward. ■

The Five Devils (directed by Léa Mysius)

The Five Devils opened in Montreal theatres on April 14, and is streaming now in Canada on MUBI.

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