Fantastic Fest 2022: THE FIVE DEVILS is a Sensuous Time-Travel Fable

Lea Mysius’ sophomore film features commanding performances by Adèle Exarchopoulos and newcomer Sally Dramé

Studies have shown that because olfactory signals get to our limbic system very quickly, smell and memory have a stronger link than other senses. Writer-Director Lea Mysius explores this conceit to fantastical ends in her sophomore feature, The Five Devils, a film that can be best expressed as an ephemeral and heart-wrenching blend of folk science-fiction and fantasy.

Vicky is a young girl who discovers a strange and powerful gift: her sense of smell is far stronger than any other human. Avoiding the attention of school bullies and prying relatives, Vicky spends her time dutifully recreating scents of favorite memories and people by combining elements in glass jars: a pine cone, milking grease, and pond water, for example, captures the scent of her mother Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos) on her daily swims in a freezing mountain lake. When her aunt Julia (Swala Emati) is released from prison, Vicky is repelled by the stranger’s invasion of her private life, and her parents’ secrecy regarding Joanne and Julia’s past relationship as high school gymnasts. However, Vicky realizes that the scent of Julia’s combined belongings allows her to silently travel into Joanne and Julia’s shared past–and Vicky becomes obsessed with uncovering the traumatic secret shared between them.

With a swirling fantasia rooted in heartbreaking reality, the experience of watching The Five Devils can be described as Back to the Future or It’s a Wonderful Life by way of Beasts of the Southern Wild. Director Lea Mysius and cinematographer Paul Guilhaume work to create jaw-dropping, tactile imagery that manages to visually evoke the olfactory-oneiric powers of the lead character (in 35mm, no less). Everything takes on a magical sheen: from refractory glasses that turn Joanne into a kaleidoscopic fairy godmother to the glow of car headlights on a pair of secretive lovers. The same sequences can also veer into a colder territory, from the breathtaking reflective gloss of a still lake to the harsh light of a bedroom vacated by a quarreling couple. Whether it’s the remembered past or lived present, the emotions of whatever characters in a scene seem to uncontrollably manifest and take over the environments they’re in. Natural staging strikes evocative tableaux in the most common places, like a karaoke bar or swimming pool. The power of editing (here by Marie Loustalot) causes sudden, impactful links between disparate actions across moments and decades–often accompanied by powerful needle drops that can leave audiences sobbing wrecks. I challenge viewers to listen to Bonnie Tyler’s perennial Karaoke classic “Total Eclipse of the Heart” after this movie and not choke up.

This exploration of heartbreak across time is sold by the dual performances of its cast, most of whom play their younger selves without the need for drastic anti-aging CG or prosthetics (save for one potent scar worn by Daphné Patakia). Moustapha Mbengue and Swala Emati play an effective brother/sister pair here, whose family ties struggle to repair in the shadow of romantic trauma involving Adèle Exarchopoulos’ Joanne. All three actors manage to convey volumes in the slightest of expressions, which Mysius and Guilhaume mine for all they’re worth. However, Sally Dramé as Vicky steals the film, with an infectious curiosity and challenge of the world that pushes boundaries into maliciousness and melancholy. Dramé carries much of the film’s thematic weight on her young but confident shoulders as a child reckoning with a harsh realization. Through her gift and the repressed memories she becomes privy to, Vicky must confront the possibility that she is the end result of the worst decisions in her family’s lives–and whether changing the past may be better for everyone, even if it means she may not exist as a result of that change.

Mysius’ commanding and compassionate second feature manages to push time-travel tales into new, tear-jerking territory–all without feeling overly wrought or demanding of its audience. Much like a scent with the power to evoke a forgotten childhood memory, The Five Devils lingers in its audience’s mind long after its final challenging sequences.

The Five Devils had its US Premiere at Fantastic Fest. The film has been acquired by MUBI for future theatrical and streaming release.

Previous post Fantastic Fest 2022: Shark Movie Sidebar Extravaganza!
Next post Fantastic Fest 2022: LYNCH/OZ Goes Down the Rabbit Hole of Lynchian Inspiration