Writer-director Léa Mysius’ second feature, The Five Devils (Les Cinq Diables), seems pretty straightforward at first. The film follows eight-year-old Vicky (Sally Dramé), who lives in the French Alps with her swim instructor mother, Joanne (Blue is the Warmest Color’s Adèle Exarchopoulos), and her firefighter father, Jimmie (Moustapha Mbengue). Vicky is an outcast and the only Black student at school; her classmates tease her with racist taunts like “butt brush” and “toilet brush,” referencing the massive afro that swirls around her face. Despite the bullying, Vicky is primarily unbothered. She’s content to spend her time with her mother and grandfather (Patrick Bouchitey), collecting jars full of her favorite scents that she keeps diligently labeled in her room.
Vicky’s intense sense of smell is the first indication that there is something mystical and magical amiss with this film. For many people, smells enact memories, driving us back to certain places and spaces in our lives. But for Vicky, it’s much more than that. Using her nose alone, she can find her mother in a blindfolded game of hide-in-seek. She can also identify where something has been or what it has come into contact with. Her collected scents are her reprieve from the chaotic world around her until something even more powerful begins to consume her.
When Vicky’s aunt, Julia (Swala Emati), her father’s younger sister, arrives in town, the young girl discovers just how truly potent her nose is. She’s immediately suspicious of Julia, especially since her parent’s marriage seems ever more frayed and fractured upon her aunt’s arrival. When Vicky discovers a vile of oil in her aunt’s bags, a deep whiff of the fragrance zips Vicky into the past, where her parents and aunt’s stories first intersected. What she learns is more than any eight-year-old could even begin to unpack. Amid her attempts to protect the person she loves above else, her mother, Vicky’s actions put the past and the future at risk. Even more shocking, when Vicky does catapult herself into the past, Julia can see her — even though she technically doesn’t exist yet.
The Five Devils is certainly an interesting watch. However, much is left unsaid, with so much occurring in the narrative. The racism that Vicky experiences at school is never fully unpacked, which is terrifying when we consider even crueler things Vicky might have to face in the future. Though her white mother is her fierce defender, it never goes below the surface. Moreover, Mysius throws everything but the kitchen sink into her film. There are elements of witchcraft, arson, time travel, and a love triangle here. While they are all intriguing, they don’t all come together seamlessly in the film.
Despite the chaos of the mixed genres and the strange narrative, The Five Devils still has standout moments. Dramé is exquisite as the precocious Vicky, who could use just a touch more adult supervision. Moreover, the crisp and stunning visuals and colors, shot using 35mm, keep the audience drawn in, especially as Exarchopoulos becomes increasingly intense to watch as the movie presses forward.
There is a lot that works in The Five Devils. The heart of the film appears to be about alternative paths not taken, longing, and what could have been. Yet, with so much happening in the movie, Mysius doesn’t leave her audience with much of a roadmap. If you’re not up for piecing the narrative together on your own, then the ending won’t leave you with much resolve.
The Five Devils (Les Cinq Diables) was screened at the Cannes Film Festival on May 23, 2022, as a part of Unifrance’s Inaugural Critics Lab.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic, consultant and entertainment
editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in Netflix’s Tudum, EBONY, JET,
ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis
on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a
cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her
reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide.