THE STORY – Vicky is a solitary girl with a magical gift who lives with her parents in the French province. When her father’s sister bursts into their life after being released from prison, her presence brings back the past in a violent way.
THE CAST – Adèle Exarchopoulos, Sally Dramé, Swala Emati, Moustapha Mbengue & Daphné Patakia
THE TEAM – Léa Mysius (Director/Writer) & Paul Guilhaume (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 95 Minutes
Young Vicky (Sally Dramé) has an incredible sense of smell. In fact, it’s so uncanny that her mother, Joanna (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a water aerobics instructor and lifeguard at the local fitness center, isn’t quite sure what to do about it. Joanna is unnerved by her daughter’s ability to play hide and seek completely blindfolded and her penchant for collecting things in jars classified by their smell. Still, any thought of taking her to a doctor or psychiatrist goes out the window when her firefighter husband (Moustapha Mbengue) announces that his sister Julia (Swala Emati) will stay with them for a while. Julia was in prison, and everyone in town seemed to think she was crazy. Thanks to a smelly black bottle in Julia’s bag, Vicky is about to discover why: When she mixes the bottle’s contents with other objects and smells them, she passes out and wakes up in the past or someone’s memory of it. How or why this happened, Vicky doesn’t know, but after seeing how her mother met her father and her aunt, she’s determined to get to the bottom of their story and figure out why Julia’s presence has thrown her mother for such a loop.
Director/co-writer Léa Mysieux’s sophomore feature “The Five Devils” certainly has a great premise. The concept of a young girl’s sense of smell is so strong that it can conjure sense memories that aren’t even her own and feels genuinely original, but much about it feels half-baked. This includes details that may be unnecessary, like what exactly is in that black bottle and what it’s doing to Vicky. Still, it also includes bigger things, such as whether Vicky is time-traveling or something else is happening. This lack of clarity around the film’s very premise can be frustrating, especially when it’s made clear that Julia, in the past, can see Vicky and implies that this was what drove her crazy. But in the present, Julia barely interacts with Vicky, let alone seems perturbed by seeing an actual ghost from the past in the flesh. Is she trying not to break the space-time continuum? Did she leave the mysterious black bottle in her bag specifically for Vicky to find? Why? Is she trying to help Julia or harm her? Or does she not know who Vicky is? Julia’s relationship with Vicky is left almost completely opaque, disappointingly so at times. But it seems as though Vicky and her strange abilities are more of a vehicle to explore a completely different story altogether, one about a group of teenagers in this small village in the foothills of the French Alps and how the values held dear by their parent’s generation have become toxic, and even infected the next generation.
It’s an interesting storytelling choice, layering two coming-of-age narratives on top of each other in this way. Vicky’s penchant for collecting scents, especially her mother’s, can be seen as an attempt to capture the essence of things, so she can always have them with her. But learning about her parents’ youthful selves teaches Vicky some hard lessons, most prominent among them the fact that people can change significantly over time and that what we see isn’t always the whole truth of a person. But Mysieux’s screenplay (co-written with Paul Guilhaume) is trying to juggle so many things that Vicky’s story gets short shrift, a victim of hazy conception and misplaced emphasis. Thankfully, Dramé manages to give a performance utterly free of any child actor preciousness, bringing to mind Quvenzhene Wallis’s wiser-than-her-years performance in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” one of the most natural child performances in film history. Even with an underwritten part, she communicates a lot of emotion without using words, giving Vicky more weight than the screenplay does.
As a director, Mysieux is fantastic at building atmosphere, and that heightens the sense of intrigue inherent in the plot. That and the uniqueness of Vicky’s story help keep the film watchable even when it doesn’t make sense. The cast also helps some, each member charismatic to a fault. Exarchopoulos will be the main draw for most. She continues to prove herself as one of the most exciting French actresses currently working, sharply delineating youthful Joanna’s devil-may-care attitude from the regretful, trapped, making-the-best-of-things present-day Joanna. Unfortunately, “The Five Devils” ultimately comes across as a lot of great ideas piled on top of each other without a unifying vision to pull them all together. It’s a mess: an incredibly intriguing, artfully assembled mess, but a mess all the same.