Review: ‘The Five Devils’ stuns at some points and baffles at others

The fantasy drama is at times confusing, but ultimately a visually stunning and touching watch.


Aaliya Luthra

(Illustration by Aaliya Luthra)

Saisha Kapoor, Contributing Writer

Last May, Léa Mysius’ second feature film, “The Five Devils,” screened at the Directors’ Fortnight section of the Cannes Film Festival and earned a five-minute standing ovation. Previously only shown in French theaters, the film is now running a limited theatrical release in the United States, allowing audiences to dive into its carefully-curated visuals and dramatic storytelling.

Mysius’ work in film is vast and versatile. Her contributions include co-writing the screenplay of Claire Denis’ “Stars at Noon,” which was also screened at Cannes in 2022. Perhaps influenced by her background in literature, having studied at the University of Paris, Mysius has a tender and specific choice of syntax, evident in the dialogue of “The Five Devils.”

The film, which is beautifully and attentively shot, presents itself as a supernatural drama. Set in a small town in the southeast of France, a snowy and mountainous part of the country, “The Five Devils” begins with a foreboding atmosphere. A young woman named Joanne Soler (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and her husband Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue), raise their young daughter Vicky (Sally Dramé) in the village. Joanne makes a living teaching water aerobics classes at a fitness center called Les Cinq Diables — which translates to “The Five Devils” — and often brings Vicky along. Monotony plagues their shared life, but the young Vicky — with the aid of a complex and mature performance from Dramé — seems wise beyond her years, and senses there is something deeper behind the simplicity of her family’s life. 

Vicky is deeply connected to her mother. She is a quiet child, bullied at school and isolated of her own accord. Born with a strange gift, Vicky is able to reproduce any scent she likes, and she bottles those scents in little jars. A scent she’s known before can take her to an exact point from her past.

Nostalgia and longing are the sorts of ailments you can never truly get rid of, something Vicky quickly comes to understand. She looks at the wooden, lifeless ways through which her mother and father interact, and clearly sees Joanne’s exhaustion with her life. Vicky discovers that her gift allows her to see into others’ memories, giving her a chance to peek into her mother’s youth.

Vicky’s father’s sister, Julia (Swala Emati), recently came to stay with the Soler family, and is followed throughout the village by secretive whispers. Through shots of flames and crying girls paired with glimpses of empty winter streets and abandoned Christmas lights, we quickly learn that something terrible happened in the town. Shortly after, the film reveals that Julia, a pyromaniac who struggles with substance abuse, burned down the gymnastics center she and Joanne had attended in their youth.

In Vicky’s regressions to the past, she sees her mother’s longing can be traced back to the relationship she once had with Julia. During Vicky’s visits, past Julia is able to see her as a ghost-like apparition, haunting Julia as a specter of the unknowable future to come. Julia’s reason for burning down a central part of her village was to stop what she knew would inevitably become the future: Joanne would have a child with her brother. It’s possible Julia’s destructive behaviors indicate that she is fleeing something, but it’s never made clear to the audience what that thing is. While that ambiguity may be the intention of “The Five Devils,” it leaves gaps in our understanding of Julia as a character. 

As sharp as viewers’ theories may be, guesses cannot make up for the lack of Julia’s backstory, a problem that echoes throughout the film. It is hard to gauge what the story itself wants to be, despite it being enchanting to look at. In some ways, it is a peculiar sort of love story, and a fantasy without outright monsters or magic.

Vicky’s almost frenzied collecting of the remnants of the world around her signifies an understanding of the world that defies her age. She is already aware of how quickly things in life become part of the past, and the scents she collects remind her of the past in the same way a certain perfume might invite heart-wrenching nostalgia. Perhaps the magical, almost haunting nature of this film lies in this simple phenomenon. We marvel at our missed connections and lost loves, and because of that, they become a dream — mystical and unattainable.

“The Five Devils” is teeming with interesting ideas, yet its spiritual elements in regard to Vicky’s gift of seeing the past are underdeveloped. It’s difficult to understand its relevance to the plot, which remains vague throughout the film. 

However, the film does have a heart. Vicky asks her mother: “Did you love me before I existed?” We love our children before they exist, and we love certain people long after they’ve left our lives. Part of time’s elusiveness is that it will have no bearing on the way we feel or love. This aspect of “The Five Devils” was sweet and magical in itself — the idea of an unconditional and timeless love.

“The Five Devils” is the sort of film that you cannot look away from, despite how you may feel about it. Stunning and immersive camerawork by Paul Guilhaume creates the genuine feel of a small alpine town in France. Its script manages to create subtle, intensely human characters who are shrouded in mystery. Despite its sometimes confusing nature, The Five Devilsis a visually beautiful, promising second feature film from Mysius.

“The Five Devils” is currently showing at the Angelika Film Center.

Contact Saisha Kapoor at [email protected]