Vague Visages’ The Five Devils review contains minor spoilers. Léa Mysius’ 2022 movie stars Adèle Exarchopoulos, Swala Emati and Sally Dramé. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
The Five Devils, co-written and directed by French filmmaker Léa Mysius, burns bright with its cerebral story about female relationships. In a small mountain town, a biracial adolescent (Sally Dramé as Vicky Soler) travels through the past upon meeting her mysterious aunt, Julia (Swala Emati). Mysius reverse-engineers themes from her provocative 2017 feature debut, Ava, but shows more directorial polish. She keeps the French New Wave-like whispering to a minimum, which in turn benefits her core cast of female actresses, all of whom receive big performance moments during The Five Devils’ fiery second half.
Mysius pairs spooky sound design with Mother Nature and supernatural themes in The Five Devils. Whereas water plays a prominent role in Ava, fire grounds the filmmaker’s second coming-of-age tale. Exarchopoulos brings star power to The Five Devils as Vicky’s swimming coach mother, Joanne; however, it’s Dramé and Emati who dominate the screen as their characters assess each other’s motivations. The conflict? Young Vicky — who experiences bullying at school — struggles with the meaning of her earthly existence and doesn’t understand the complicated history between her mother and aunt. But due to the girl’s exceptional smelling skills (along with a supernatural twist), she’s able to find some clarity by recreating her favorite scents and drifting away into the great unknown.
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The Five Devils achieves various objectives with its subtle opening sequence. First, a wide shot pans to the sea and up to a mountain, suggesting that someone or something might descend upon the focal community. Two, a flashback sequence with no context teases a community tragedy, with Exarchopoulos’ communicating her character’s fear and concerns while looking at an unidentified person. So, right away in The Five Devils, there’s a “whodunit” mystery to consider. Interestingly, though, the film initially plays out like a traditional Euro flick about small town living, evidenced by a series of musical sequences which essentially keep the audience’s feet planted firmly in the real world, at least until Mysius reveals a magical card up her sleeve.
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Is Joanna a bad mom? Is Vicky a weird kid? Is Julia a sociopath? Mysius addresses all of these questions in The Five Devils but seems mostly concerned with her characters’ peace of mind — the same concept that drives Noée Abita’s titular protagonist in Ava. The film’s undeniable racial element also complicates the narrative’s darkest moment and raises questions about what it means to truly feel like an outcast. This particular subtext leads to superb acting moments for Exarchopoulos, whose colorblind character tries her best to please everyone. Alas, the weight of it all naturally translates to confusion for her young and biracial daughter. And so one could view The Five Devils as a unique story about generational trauma.
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As a filmmaker, Mysius makes fantastic casting decisions. In Ava, Abita mostly carries the load, and has since transformed into a promising actress. In The Five Devils, Dramé similarly displays an acute understanding of the human condition, specifically in terms of her non-verbal sparring (or riffing) with Emati and Exarchopoulos.
Many people tend to ignore historical facts that seemingly don’t impact them directly, and yet the past always comes back around to surprise or haunt us, time and time again. Mysius, in both Ava and The Five Devils, guides the audience to philosophically poignant conclusions about her characters’ interior lives and what they want from the future, based on what they know to be true about the past.
The Five Devils is available to stream at MUBI.