Who are you?
This is a simple question that precedes an overly complex answer. You are not merely your thoughts, your feelings, your experiences, the sum total of everything you have encountered up until this moment, you are also everything that came before you had consciousness. You are crafted out of the DNA of your progenitors who were crafted out of theirs. Your “you” comes from their “them” and all the others before them. This is often a difficult concept for people to realize in their brains when so often we also forget that we ourselves are just magical meatsuits powered by electrical currents in a flesh-wrapping. And we are magic. Combining the complexity of identity with the unique might of humanity comes co-writer/director Léa Mysius’s (Ava) and co-writer Paul Guilhaume’s (Ava) latest project, The Five Devils (Les Cinq diables), a thrilling dramatic tale of familial discord through the lens of parental relationships, in select theaters now and screening during The Overlook Film Festival 2023.
In a small French village surrounded by the Alps lives the Soler family: father Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue), mother Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos), and daughter Vicky (newcomer Sally Dramé). After 10 years together, the only two people who seem happy in their lives together are Joanne and Vicky due to a rather unhealthy view of her mother through Vicky’s social isolation. Greater tension in the home arises when Jimmy’s estranged sister Julie (Swala Emati) comes to visit for a while, forcing a number of truths to come thundering the surface. Strangely, as Vicky tries to figure out how to reset things back to the way they were, she finds herself going on a journey through her mother’s memories, kickstarted through Vicky’s obsession with gathering smells and retaining the sense memory.
Mysius’s The Five Devils isn’t so much a horror film as it is an intense family drama with a slight, almost supernatural twist. We don’t get a full explanation as to how Vicky is able to transport herself (seemingly corporeal in the past while still in the present), but that doesn’t matter as much as what the journey represents and its relationship to her parents. In the first sequence where we meet Joanne and Vicky properly, Joanne is working as a swimming instructor leading a geriatric class. Exarchopoulos presents Joanne as engaged with the students albeit in a disconnected-from-the-moment, going-by-the-formula-kind-of way. Joanne’s face is mostly disengaged, offering instruction without investment or care. This barely shifts when class ends and Vicky, with great exuberance from Dramé, offers to help clear the pool of noodles. This exemplifies their relationship and how they see themselves: Joanne is stuck, passionless; while Vicky is delighted to be doing anything with her mother. This continues when the pair go to a lake so that Joanne can swim, a treacherous activity given it’s December, and with Vicky as both caretaker and company. Before we even meet Jimmy, the audience is clued in to the discord and distance between husband and wife, as well as the potentially unhealthy relationship between Vicky to her mother. This attachment is what enables The Five Devils to lean into the more uncomfortable aspects of the subject matter, with Vicky embodying a complex antagonist.
There are aspects that are difficult to explore within The Five Devils without spoiling the film entirely. It’s easy to explain that the titillating title refers specifically to a location, not an ideology, group, or spirit. However, it also refers to the number of people intertwined in the tale: the four members of the Soler family and Daphné Patakia’s Nadine, a childhood friend of both Joanne and Jimmy’s. These five make up a collective whose lives intersect, thanks to time travel, in two periods, enabling Mysius to interrogate the concept of obsession, love, and family outside of the patriarchal puritanical view. Vicky is a young child, quirky in the way that makes her a loner at school yet accepted and comfortable at home, instilling a greater connection to her mother. So what happens when Vicky is introduced to someone that’s supposedly important to both her parents yet she knows nothing about? With all the secrecy, Vicky views Julie as an interloper, someone who is going to steal what she values most. Through the discovery of time travel via sense memory, Vicky is the hunter of the truth, unaware and inexperienced enough with life to understand that the truth is complex and love is enduring. Herein lies the danger. It’s far more difficult to dig into what Vicky’s journeys into the past mean, though it can be stated Mysiuis presents Vicky’s interpretation of the past versus what it actually is with incredible care and deftness. The writer/director is clear in her narrative intention, recognizing the difficulty that the young have in declaring their independence against the old, all while telling a story from the perspective of the young who are as deeply incapable of understanding due to their lack of perspective.
Where The Five Devils loses some of its emotional heft is in what it doesn’t go far enough with. For instance, the audience is given just enough to understand why Joanne swims in the lake (even in the dead of winter) despite having access to an indoor pool. My read on it is of simultaneous retention of connection to a precious moment in Joanne’s life as it is self-imposed punishment for her cowardice. This is small, subtle, and also dovetails nicely into the almost unhealthy relationship Vicky has with Joanne, an important distinction from other films involving familial strive. But while the film gives the audience just enough to understand why Vicky is able to time travel, it never interrogates the why enough for the ability to have meaning beyond the symbolic. Though it’s established early that Vicky has a fondness for collecting smells so as to revisit specific memories, the ability to jump in time is specifically related to an unknown substance whose manifestation is not magical nor unexplainable, meaning that the owner surely would’ve noticed it was missing. If not noticed, then is the substance created and introduced specifically for the purpose of Vicky using it? Without answers, there comes a certain kind of emotional apathy that undercuts what should be several powerful moments of personal conflict and discovery. It doesn’t fully deaden the impact of the narrative, but certainly weakens a few aspects.
One of the strangest things that I ever did was realize that my parents are people. They are not all-knowing, all-seeing perfect people who towered over me because they were giants, they just were bigger, more developed, and had far more experience with the world. They make mistakes. They screw up. Not just now, but well before being parents. They, like me, struggled to find their place in the world and likely still do. One should struggle with life as they learn new things to battle what is already known in order to create a different, hopefully improved version of one’s self. Mysius uses Vicky to explore the terror and horror of what it means to go through this metamorphosis of being able to see one’s parents as something more than their titles, but as individuals. It helps that Dramé offers a versatile performance, able to convey the wide-eyed look of innocent adolescence and the unflinching intensity of a child who doesn’t realize the havoc they can cause by not thinking beyond the moment. We may be led by Dramé’s Vicky, the ill-conceived protector that she is, but this is a tale of loss that implies a certain inevitability of fate that would make one’s blood run cold if not for the slight thread of hope Mysius leaves us with. Even if that hope is tinged with the reminder that no matter the lessons learned, there will come another generation who must be reminded that the adults are just people, too, trying to make their way in the world.
Screening during The Overlook Film Festival 2023.
In theaters on March 24th, 2023.
Available on MUBI May 12th, 2023.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.