The new French film from acclaimed director Léa Mysius takes time travel and family drama to new heights this year…
By Matthew Creith
“I love you mom…more than anything else.”
French director Léa Mysius’ second feature directorial effort, The Five Devils, premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival in the Queer Palm category, receiving a remarkable five-minute standing ovation from the audience. Built as a fantasy thriller seen through the eyes of a young girl, the film uses magical realism as a device to get across its points of real-world issues like racism, homophobia and sexism. Written by Mysius and Paul Guilhaume, who was also the movie’s cinematographer, The Five Devils is a strikingly visual drama about one family’s shared history.
The movie takes place in a quaint village at the foot of the Alps, where eight-year-old Vicky (Sally Dramé) lives with her mother Joanne (Blue Is the Warmest Colour actor Adèle Exarchopoulos), a former champion gymnast, and her firefighter father Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue), who is originally from Senegal. Vicky is biracial, and other girls her age often tease her for that. They specifically make fun of her hair, referring to her in conversation as “Toilet Brush.” But Vicky is a confident child with an uncanny ability to take scents and collect them in jars so she can connect memories to them. Her sense of smell is otherworldly, and her mother knows it, which helps bring them closer together.
The family’s simple life is disrupted when Jimmy’s sister, Julia (Swala Emati), appears out of nowhere. Julia has a devastating past that the small town they all reside in hasn’t forgotten about, which comes into focus towards the end of the movie. It’s also clear that there’s friction between Joanne and Julia because of something that occurred in the past that isn’t fully realized at first. Due to Vicky’s supernatural insight into fragrances, she senses something in Julia’s past that needs exploring, which propels Vicky to time-travel. For some reason, Julia is the only one who can see Vicky when the young girl travels to the past, which in turn reflects an observation of crucial moments in her family’s narrative.
The time-travel element is the film’s main plot tactic. While it’s an interesting aspect from the start, it proves divisive as the film progresses. Unlike movies such as Back to the Future, Vicky’s meddling in the past doesn’t seem to have dramatic effects in the present, especially when Julia is involved. Vicky is merely an observer for much of the movie rather than someone who can make necessary changes to her family’s well-being.
Through Vicky’s experiences, the audience is exposed to the discriminatory attitudes and actions of some of the town’s residents. The Five Devils doesn’t shy away from these issues and is respectful in a way that doesn’t feel overly preachy. The supernatural element of the film adds a bewitching coating to the premise. Vicky’s ability to time-travel and witness crucial moments in her family’s history is a unique concept that provides a fresh perspective on the genre.
The Five Devils lost the Queer Palm award at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival to the Pakistani drama Joyland, which went on to be shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film. But after its initial presentation on the French Riviera, The Five Devils continued its film festival run by appearing at the Austin, Texas-based Fantastic Fest, where it took home the prize for Best Picture in the Next Wave Competition. Since then, the movie has racked up some other high-profile nominations and awards, including a well-deserved nomination for Best Visual Effects at France’s César Awards and a win of the Best Director award for Léa Mysius at the 2023 Dublin International Film Festival.
The film has since been acquired by curated streaming service and distributor MUBI, which has given the flick a tagline that reads, “A spellbinding supernatural mystery forged from family secrets and queer romance.” A theatrical release will take shape in North America, parts of Europe, and Latin America. The Five Devils will also be available to stream on MUB later this year.
The cast of The Five Devils is impressive in every way imaginable. The film features some captivating performances, especially from Sally Dramé as Vicky, who has an intriguing presence and wisdom beyond her years. This is apparently Dramé’s first role in a movie, which is astounding given that she delivers some of the most poignant scenes in the film at such a young age. Even though she is young, it appears that Dramé might have a stellar acting career ahead of her if how she approached this role is any indication.
Adèle Exarchopoulos’ Joanne strikes a dramatic chord in a film dripping with symbolism and intrigue. She takes risks here as a performer, as does Swala Emati as Julia, and both characters prove sexual fluidity to be a mainstay of this fantasy drama that further explores queer identity in a very fantastical way.
Exarchopoulos, now 29 years old, first came to viewers’ attention in 2013 with a brilliant performance in Blue is the Warmest Colour. That film was also shown at the Cannes Film Festival, where she was given the Palme d’Or. Not even 20 years old at the time, Exarchopoulos became the youngest person ever to win the award. From there, her career has skyrocketed to international recognition, to the point that she will next be featured alongside British actor Ben Whishaw in Ira Sachs’ newest film, Passages. Passages had its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and will be released to global audiences this summer.
After 2017’s Ava, this is director Léa Mysius’ second feature film, although you’d think she was a veteran filmmaker given how stylish and deep The Five Devils can be at times. The movie straddles the line of several different genres and opportunities at once, blending together ideas from fantasy, supernatural, queer drama, thriller and familial tension storylines that have made their way into global filmmaking for generations.
Releasing to wider audiences this spring, The Five Devils is a visually stunning and captivating piece for the modern age, filled to the brim with a marvelous soundtrack that elevates a typical family drama to astounding heights. Léa Mysius creates a dark and mysterious atmosphere that permeates every scene. The use of colour and light is exceptionally vivid, with bold and saturated hues used to create a dreamlike quality to the visuals, thanks in large part to the cinematography by Paul Guilhaume.
Watch The Five Devils, the wildly imaginative breakout from writer-director Léa Mysius, streaming exclusively on MUBI from May 12. A MUBI release. Get 30 days free at mubi.com/INMagazine.
MATTHEW CREITH is a freelance journalist based in Austin, Texas. He is a member of GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics, and participates in the association’s Dorian Awards. You may also know him for his work on Matinee With Matt, Screen Rant and Giant Freakin Robot. You can find him on Twitter: @matthew_creith or Instagram: matineewithmatt.
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