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French writer/director Léa Mysius concocts a compelling witch’s brew with “The Five Devils,” but the result doesn’t quite come together with the potency she’d desired.
With her second feature, Mysius tells a story about racism, sexism, small-town provincialism, and homophobia, all within the alluring swirl of a supernatural thriller. There’s also a time-travel element that raises as many questions as it answers. It’s a lot. Her film features some captivating performances—namely from the young actress at its center, Sally Dramé—while stranding other actors with too little characterization. Still, she creates a sustained, mysterious mood and some striking visuals, which consistently make it watchable.
Dramé plays an eight-year-old girl named Vicky, who’s growing up in the quaint village at the foot of the Alps where her mother, Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos), was a champion gymnast and all-around queen bee in her youth; now, Joanne goes through the motions teaching water aerobics to the elderly at the local pool. Vicky is biracial—her firefighter father, Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue), is originally from Senegal—which makes her the target of mean girls who bully her for her magnificent mane, pushing her around and calling her “Toilet Brush.” Still, Vicky is a self-possessed only child who enjoys her solitude, occupying her time collecting various items in jars for the memories their scents evoke. She has a preternatural sense of smell, as we see from a suspenseful early sequence in which her mother blindfolds her with a scarf and asks Vicky to find her in the forest. Dramé has an intriguing presence and a wisdom beyond her years, but there’s nothing cutesy or precocious about her performance.
The family’s simple life gets upended when Jimmy’s younger sister, Julia (Swala Emati), returns after a decade away. Her arrival also sends a ripple through the town, where she’s not just notorious but a pariah for a devastating act she committed long ago. Joanne and Julia have a bristling tension from the start: There’s some history between them, which “The Five Devils” explores in flashbacks. But even before then, Emati plays the character with the trepidation of a wounded animal. As for the man at the center of this connection, Mbengue gets frustratingly little to work with; Jimmy is withdrawn and uncommunicative and little else.
But Vicky quickly discovers she has an unexpectedly powerful connection with this relative she’d never met. One whiff of Julia’s clothes and personal items causes her to pass out and transports her to the past, where she can peek in on her future mom, dad, and aunt at crucial moments in their shared history. It’s a cool concept akin to the premise of “Back to the Future”: Who wouldn’t want to spy on their parents as teenagers? And yet, this structure has some nagging flaws in its interior logic. Only Julia can see Vicky during these interludes in the past—why doesn’t she say anything to the little girl in the present since they’re all living under the same roof? We’re left to wonder: Does Julia even know in the present that Vicky is invading her past? And when Vicky brings back items from events that occurred a decade ago, what impact does that have on everyone’s shared experiences?
While we’re left to ponder these questions, at least we can appreciate the scenery, which is varied and visceral. Working with cinematographer Paul Guilhaume, who is also her co-screenwriter, Mysius creates some vibrant visual contrasts that tell a story all their own. The chilly isolation of the picturesque but foreboding Alps clashes with the crackle and roar of the catastrophic fire that bookends the film’s narrative. This is where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and there’s nowhere to hide from either of these dangers.
Exarchopoulos is at the center of both of these extremes. As shown in films like “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” the French actress has a raw presence that suggests an exciting unpredictability. We see that side of her talent eventually in “The Five Devils,” but only in sporadic flickers.
Now playing in theaters.
Adèle Exarchopoulos as Joanne Soler
Swala Emati as Julia Soler
Sally Dramé as Vicky Soler
Moustapha Mbengue as Jimmy Soler
Patrick Bouchitey as Le père de Joanne
Daphné Patakia as Nadine
Hugo Dillon as Jeff