‘The Five Devils’: smells, supernatural powers, and ominous imagery

"The Five Devils" opens March 27th at the Angelika Film Center.
“The Five Devils” opens March 27th at the Angelika Film Center.

French director Léa Mysius’ “The Five Devils” is steeped in fairy tales and fantasy but ultimately unclassifiable. It takes place in a culture where supernatural power can be dangerous, and skin color could make the difference between being perceived as a hero and monster. Mysius places her characters in nature, depicted in overwhelming 35mm cinematography. She uses wide drone shots of forests and lakes. Set around Christmas, the film takes place in the midst of snow, when the woods and lakes where its characters live are at their least inviting. As a film about girls’ lives, it has few peers: Anna Rose Holmer’s “The Fits” and Céline Sciamma’s “Petite Maman” come to mind. It resists the impulse to morph from fantasy into horror, keeping its lurid impulses under control.

Vicky (Sally Dramé) is an 8-year-old girl with the ability to detect even the faintest smell. Blindfolded in the woods, she can find her mother Joanne (Adele Exacharpolous), who teaches swimming, by scent alone. She can put the essence of these fragrances into jars, which she collects and stores. Joanne is white, while her father Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue) is a Senegalese immigrant. Her parents’ relationship looks strained. It becomes much more complicated when Jimmy’s sister Julia (Swala Emati) returns from a prison after a sentence for arson. While her behavior may have been dangerous, Joanne’s father (Patrick Bouchitey) insults her as a “lesbo-pyromaniac.” The town is full of casual racism and homophobia. Vicky’s classmates mock her curly hair. They try to force an egg, then liquid soap, down her mouth. The more time Joanne and Julia spend together, the more apparent the depth of their love becomes, but so do the magic powers Vicky has inherited from Julia.

“The Five Devils” invents a queer primal scene: Vicky watches her mother and aunt kiss, coming to understand their relationship for the first time. Jimmy’s role in Joanne’s life is much smaller than Julia’s, although Joanne says that she loved him around the time Vicky was born. Joanne and Julia have a far more passionate bond, and once the latter returns, “The Five Devils” becomes devoted to it. One senses that Jimmy was a substitute for Julia, whose role in her life may have been necessary mostly for Vicky to be born. Joanne’s relationship with the two siblings seems polyamorous, although no one in the film uses that word or concept.

Mysius’ direction is full of ominous imagery, captured in dark blue tones. Long, winding roads run through the town where Vicky, Joanne, and Julia live. Joanne’s love of swimming, especially her decision to go swimming in an icy lake after warning Julia about the dangers of hypothermia, feels slightly masochistic. In “The Five Devils,” water is a space open to girls and women. The family house’s brown walls and chirping parakeets imply a continuation of the forest outside it. Continuing this tendency, Florencia Di Conciello’s soundtrack is drawn from sound effects, especially field recordings of animals, rather than conventional instruments. Instead of a more straightforward score, Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” which Joanne and Julia perform together at karaoke, plays a major role in demonstrating the characters’ emotions.

Vicky’s consciousness rests at the borders of sleep and wakefulness, to a degree that she doesn’t understand. The film’s opening scene, initially suggested to be a dream, turns out to be a flashback. She can use her mind to knock out bullies. “The Five Details” takes her powers in some dark directions. Once she boils a crow, her behavior around animals plays into tropes about budding serial killers.

“The Five Devils” lifts ideas from both horror and superhero films, but it plays out supernatural elements in a very grounded world. The script isn’t fully able to make its ideas, like women passing down their power and memories from generation to generation, work as literal concepts, and the genre elements never feel entirely integrated into the love story. Particularly in the last half hour, some of its concepts begin to look silly. Still, it gets its atmosphere’s chilly setting right down to its bones. It finds a new way to depict the turbulence of adolescence, where an explosion always seems just a step away.

“The Five Devils” | Directed by Léa Mysius | MUBI | In French with English subtitles | Opens March 27th at the Angelika Film Center