A witchy tale of time travel, young love, and sporty women, Léa Mysius’s sophomore feature is an entrancing puzzle film anchored by compelling performances. Set in a small French town nestled within a mountain range (known as “The Five Devils” of the title), the film incorporates elements of magical realism, adding some flair to its provincial setting. Adèle Exarchopoulos stars as Joanne, a young mother and bored water aerobics instructor, alongside the precocious Sally Dramé as her 8-year-old daughter, Vicky. Both actresses are strikingly charismatic, with visibly pensive, expressive faces. Saddled with a troubling knowledge of the past, Dramé’s Vicky masters the art of the furrowed brow as she struggles to comprehend her family’s secrets. Exarchopoulos, on the other hand, possesses an inherently youthful, dimpled smile, allowing her some wiggle room in scenes that flash back to her teenage days. In a film that plays fast and loose with several conventions of reality, a suspension of disbelief is all but required of its audience.
Particularly attached to her somber mother, Vicky is a unique child with an uncanny and acute olfactory sense. When her father’s sister, Julia (Swala Emati), suddenly visits after a long absence, Vicky feels threatened by the new woman in the house. Prone to “cataloging” smelly ephemera in glass jars with misspelled labels, she quickly learns that one sniff of a concoction made from her mysterious aunt’s belongings will cause her to pass out and somehow travel back in time—allowing her to bear witness to her teenage mother’s romance with Julia. It’s an utterly bizarre premise, but Mysius makes it work, presenting the time jumps directly with abrupt edits and free from juvenile special effects. After the first jump, she often begins scenes in medias res, causing a momentary confusion over the time period that is actually fun to suss out. These bits of magic and timeline tricks are some of the more rewarding aspects of The Five Devils, which might have been somewhat bland without them.
That isn’t to say that the film is without style. Mysius’s co-writer and cinematographer Paul Guilhaume offers some memorable flourishes (a quick zoom here, an unorthodox camera placement there), and Florencia Di Concilio’s score is fundamentally creepy with minimal drum-banging for maximum witchiness. Other details also stand out, like the opening shot (which is expanded and repeated later) of Joanne and her friends sobbing emphatically in front of a raging fire. Locked together with their arms around one another, all of them are wearing the same tacky leotards and sparkly hair scrunchies, the nuances of their expressions drowned out by the flames. It is an inexplicably witchy image—one of many in a film that does not directly include witchcraft within its fantastic criteria. Instead, it’s a cumulative aesthetic, aided by a female-dominated cast and an unspoken magic milieu. Mysius’s film would pair well with Joachim Trier’s 2017 magical-realist telekinesis-drama Thelma, which, coincidentally, also explores both water themes and a young lesbian relationship. It’s almost as if women are inherently powerful… or indie-fantasy-film tropes are a bit repetitive.
Regarding the lesbian love story in The Five Devils, the romantic foil is portrayed with efficient brooding by Emati in her feature debut. Tragically resigned to her outcast status in the present and haunted by the sudden appearance of Vicky in her past, Emati’s Julia is a broken character, occasionally buoyed by Joanne’s affection. In one of the film’s most emotionally potent scenes, the two women belt out a drunken, heavily accented karaoke performance of “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” focused so intently on each other that they are oblivious to the crowd’s disgust, their outpouring of emotions visually renewing a lapsed love affair.
Watching the duo sing from her seat in a nearby booth, Vicky practically steals the film in a brief shot by virtue of her badass pair of kaleidoscopic glasses. Her facial expression frozen in an icy glare, Vicky cuts an impossibly cool, imposing figure, impressive enough to gain prominence in the film’s promotional materials. Mysius also uses the glasses as a means to frame a psychedelic reaction shot, with Joanne’s image artistically fractured into multiple faces. Ever focused on her troubled mother, Vicky struggles with her mom’s overlapping relationships out of a fear of being pushed out. She controls the narrative (quite literally, scuttling back and forth in time), and once she feels secure in Joanne’s love, the plot lines come to a somewhat tidy end that is nearly overturned with an unnecessary twist that will leave most viewers scratching their heads. Here, again, suspending disbelief is essential in fully falling under the film’s spell.
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