The Five Devils review – haunting sapphic drama of secrets and silences
Writer-director Léa Mysius seamlessly blends the natural and the supernatural in this tragic love story starring Adèle Exarchopoulos
As the only Black child in a bigoted town, and mocked as “Toilet Brush” for her afro, you’d think Vicky (Sally Dramé) would be preoccupied enough with her own problems. Yet the intuitive eight-year-old is more concerned with what is going on at home. When her father's sister, Julia (Swala Emati), comes to visit, it becomes clear that the tension between her aunt and mother, Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos), amounts to more than just a family squabble.
Though Vicky's family tend to dismiss her sharp instincts, like many children she understands more than she lets on. Soon we discover the burden of difference is one she shares with each of her family members – even her white mother. Vicky is, in fact, in possession of remarkable olfactory abilities that allow her to not only replicate the scents of those around her, but glimpse into the past lives of her relatives. Over the length of The Five Devils, she will uncover a tragic love story.
There is a knack to marrying magic with realism in film. What French writer-director Léa Mysius instinctively understands is that the trick is to make the two appear to have co-existed all along. Between the cold conservative Alpine town and the distant family who inhabit it, the secrets lie in so many silences. This is a film where tension and power come from all that is left unsaid. Vicky’s abilities are never named, neither are the haunting scars that mark her aunt.
The present that Vicky inhabits may be cold, her family forced together by shared trauma. But the scenes set in the past are filled with warmth – moments glowing with possibility. However, there is an irony to this story of sapphic romance; because the sparks we later uncover between Joanne and Julia are seen from the perspective of a child, we can only be shown so much. These instances are certainly tender, but the film's only passionate sex scene is actually a heterosexual one, the lesbian love that blossoms made limited through this gaze. We can only insinuate their passion, and not quite experience it.
This element aside, The Five Devils is a film that really sinks into the bones, its magic strong enough that you can still feel it reverberating inside you days after you've seen it. Every moment of its dramatic unfolding feels natural in spite of the supernatural. Much like a cycle of generational trauma, each character is trapped into their fate. It’s a world of predetermined pain, love, and loss. It is a promise, an inevitability. The narrative will reset, the cycle will begin again.
The Five Devils was screened as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2023. It is released in UK cinemas on 24 March.Where to watch