Pictured: Joke them if they can't take a Bonnie Tyler cover. Julia (Swala Emati) and Joanne (Adèle Exarchopolous) sing 'Total Eclipse from the Heart' in director Léa Mysius's French genre-twisting drama, 'Les Cinq Diables' ('The Five Devils'). Still courtesy of F Comme Film / Trois Brigrands Productions / Le Pacte Distribution / Wild Bunch International (France)
Rightly criticised for relating outlines in spoiler terms, I tried describing director Léa Mysius’s film, Les Cinq Diables (The Five Devils) more abstractly: a fire, a child with strong sense of smell, time travel, karaoke. Other reviewers have simply described it as a lesbian drama. (Why didn’t I think of that?) Those reviewers have taken as its chief signifier the film’s star Adèle Exarchopolous, who appeared in the 2013 Cannes Palme D’Or winning lesbian romance, Blue is the Warmest Colour, in which she starred opposite Léa Seydoux. Unlike Seydoux, who has appeared in two James Bond films as well as David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future and Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, Exarchopolous is less well known internationally. Her one English language film, The Last Face, directed by Sean Penn, was greeted with derision at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.
Co-written with Paul Guilhaume, Mysius’ follow-up to her 2017 feature debut, Ava, is at its heart a mother-daughter story. Swim-fit instructor Joanne (Exarchopolous) brings her bi-racial young daughter, Vicky (newcomer Sally Dramé) to work with her as she puts her class of elderly women through a regime of aquarobics. ‘Fetch the noodles for me,’ she gently commands the eager Vicky, referring to the floating poles that swimmers use to keep themselves afloat – or ride like broomsticks, should they be so inclined. Vicky also helps her mother with her Alpine-lake water twenty-minute swims, operating the stopwatch. Were Joanne to spend more than twenty minutes in the water, she could develop cramp, go into a state of shock or worse. You might ask why Joanne has such a dangerous pastime? It is as if she uses water to punish herself from the past.
Pictured: There goes the Christmas Show. Joanne (Adèle Exarchopolous) stares at the off-screen perpetrator of a devastating blaze in a scene from 'Les Cinq Diables' ('The Five Devils') a French drama that combines scent, karaoke, a lesbian romance and time travel, co-written and directed by Léa Mysius. Still courtesy of F Comme Film / Trois Brigands Productions / Le Pacte Distribution / Wild Bunch International (France)
The opening features screaming and crying before we see a row of glitter-attired gymnasts watching their gym burn down. The blaze resulted in one of them, Nadine (Daphné Patakia) receiving facial burns. Several years on, Nadine also works at the swimming pool. Joanne is married to a local fireman, Jimmie (Moustapha Mbengue) but rarely spends time with him. Vicky isn’t mad-keen on her father either, which seems unfair. I’m sure he’d like to take Vicky to work with him, but his profession is rather more dangerous.
Jimmie receives a call. His sister, Julia (Swala Emati) is coming to stay. This news is greeted with disappointment by Joanne, for reasons that become apparent. Vicky, who declares that she loves her mother more than anything else, is also put out.
In an early scene, after her Alpine-lake swim, Joanne discovers that Vicky has an incredible sense of smell. Vicky even knows her mother’s scent. Joanne decides to test it by blindfolding Vicky and hiding in the undergrowth, covering herself with leafy branches. Walking with her arms outstretched, Vicky finds her mother easily.
Vicky not only has an incredible sense of smell, she also collects odours, keeping them in jars, even taking them to school with her idea – not a great idea, as we discover later. She takes a sample from Julia. When Vicky inhales Julia’s scent, she is taken back to the past and observes Julia as a teenager, a member of the same gymnastics troupe as her mother.
There have been a few movies recently in which young girls (or women) travel back in time and hang out with their own mothers. The Chinese comedy, Hi Mom, written and directed by Jia Ling, was a huge hit in February 2021, earning $850 million – it may be the highest grossing film directed by a woman. On the other end of the scale, Céline Sciamma’s modest children’s film, Petite Maman, earned some nice reviews and $1.9 million at the box office. Vicky doesn’t become the protagonist of The Five Devils. Rather she becomes an unwitting catalyst, spooking her aunt, who can see her as she travels back in time.
Pictured: Vicky (Sally Dramé) in a scene from the French drama, 'Les Cinq Diables' ('The Five Devils'), co-written and directed by Léa Mysius. Still courtesy of F Comme Film / Trois Brigands Productions / Le Pacte Distribution / Wild Bunch International (France)
Vicky drives a lot of the action. She is bullied by nasty classmates, who smash her scent jars. Vicky’s response frightens children and results in tension between Joanne and some of the other parents. We discover that Joanne and Julia were once lovers. Joanne’s feelings for her gymnast friend come out at a karaoke party, in which the pair perform ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’, a clear signal that Joanne’s marriage is a sham. Jimmie knows it and moves out.
Nadine too is understandably upset about Julia’s return. She caused the fire that led to her face being burnt. Also, Nadine was interested in Jimmie; however, he married Joanne instead. In a moment of anger, she smashes Joanne’s trophies that she keeps at the swimming baths. ‘You stole my life,’ she cries, cursing Joanne for spending time with Julia.
Travelling back to the past, Vicky asks the question, if her mother and Julia had remained lovers, would she have been born? For her part, Julia feels that her life is hopeless. She decides to head for the lake and swim for longer than twenty minutes.
Pictured: Fireman Jimmie (Moustapha Mbengue) and his daughter Vicky (Sally Dramé) in a scene from the climax of the French drama, 'Les Cinq Diables' ('The Five Devils'), co-written and directed by Léa Mysius. Still courtesy of F Comme Film / Trois Brigands Productions / Le Pacte Distribution / Wild Bunch International (France)
Much is resolved. Nadine and Jimmie have frantic, spurned partner sex. The fire service races to save Julia from herself.
For all its juggling of genre elements, The Five Devils doesn’t succeed in moving or surprising the audience. Noée Abita, who played the lead in Ava and impressed in Charlène Favier’s Slalom, has a small role as one of the gymnasts. Florencia Di Concilio’s score has thriller overtones – it accompanies an overhead shot of a vehicle travelling down a mountain road, evoking Les Rivières Pourpres (The Crimson Rivers).
Many scenes feature Joanne visiting and then avoiding calls from her salty father (Patrick Bouchitey), who believes strongly that if Joanne had more sex with her husband, she would be a lot of happier. It says something of how extraneous these scenes are to the narrative that I initially forgot all about them when writing this review.
Premiered in the Directors' Fortnight of the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, The Five Devils left without any prizes. Assured a release through Le Pacte in France, its international exposure will be limited to film festival screenings. Mysius also contributed to the screenplay of The Stars at Noon, adapted from Denis Johnson’s novel, directed by Claire Denis and starring Joe Alwyn and Margaret Qualley. That film also had a rough ride at Cannes 2022 but walked away as joint winner of the Grand Prix.
Reviewed at Theatre Licorne (Cannes Cinéphiles screening), Cannes La Bocca, Côte D’Azur, France, Tuesday 24 May 2022, 14:00 screening