The Five Devils (2023)
Written & Directed by Léa Mysius
The Five Devils opens and concludes with a character looking directly into the camera at the audience. That makes sense because much of the film’s narrative centers on voyeurism. So it is appropriate that we are reminded through bookends that the characters within the film could look back at the audience. That first glimpse is followed by a little girl sitting up in bed, and this cut implies the girl was dreaming this moment, that the gaze was directed at her. As the film progresses, this same little girl becomes the one spying on the adults, trying to piece together the cryptic things they say in her presence to create a more significant meaning. She wants to understand who these grown-ups are and how she came into being. What she discovers is how fragile her existence is in the face of different choices that her parents could have made. And while this movie markets itself and even feels like a horror film through the start, it ends up not being that at all, which left me feeling unsatisfied.
Vicky (Sally Dramé) is an eight-year-old girl with a supernatural sense of smell. She collects objects from nature and important belongings from the adults around her. When Vicky sniffs these things, she can learn all sorts of secrets. She lives in a secluded French village with her mother, Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos), and father, Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue). Their quiet life is disrupted when Jimmy’s estranged sister Julia (Swala Emati) shows up in town after spending a few years in prison. Julia’s return opens a decade of hidden truths about tragedies that befell the community and the circumstances that led to Joanne & Jimmy becoming married and having Vicky.
From a technical standpoint, director Lea Mysius knows precisely how to frame a shot to make the moment engrossing. Multiple scenes are shot from a distorted POV to signify we see things like Vicky would. I recall a striking moment in the supermarket where Vicky rides in a shopping cart, and everything around her feels extended and larger. Where Mysius chooses to put the camera is also very interesting, and these choices aid in building an uneasy atmosphere. Combined with precise jump cuts, we can feel the world unraveling bit by bit, with characters becoming unmoored from time and able to see things outside their purview.
The story of The Five Devils is one of unrequited queer love, and I like the unconventional way Mysius unfolds this narrative. Because everything is filtered through Vicky’s eyes, it takes a while for the audience to piece together the fragments and hear the unspoken parts. Where I fall off of my admiration of the film is in the clash of narrative and tone. Everything about this movie led me to believe this was a horror story. Now that’s a broad genre with many sub-variants, but by the end, I didn’t see a trace of horror in the picture. The cinematography tells me to feel uneasy and develop a sense of dread. And then, somewhere near the end of the second act, all that tension is deflated when we realize the narrative underneath Vicky’s journey.
Because so much of the film is caught up in stylization, we only get a little meaningful character development for our adults, especially for Julia. That really irked me because Julia’s role in the story is crucial, yet when the end credits rolled, I still couldn’t say I knew much about her beyond her role in a complicated love story. You might think that distance could be intentional; however, it’s clearly not. The final scene with Julia clearly implies a hopeful ending and that we are supposed to be happy for her. That’s hard to do when I know nothing about her.
Part of the problem lies in the racial elements included in the story. Julia and Jimmy are of African descent, and Vicky, because of her mixed heritage, is bullied by children at her school. That plot point seems to go nowhere, but it does come up several times. The non-white characters in this movie are so mystified that they become inhuman props in Joanne’s character arc. We always see them within the context of her story, despite someone like Jimmy having a full-time job as a firefighter. Seeing him at work is sparse, so every scene he’s in is about Joanne and this horrible secret from their past. This is a very jarring misstep for a movie with three Black main characters. I would argue that The Five Devils is a case of the white gaze in cinema, the desire to make the film diverse, partially comments on race but then treat its non-white characters with extreme apprehension. Even worse is that there’s no chemistry between characters meant to be in love. That could have been helped if they had developed personalities.
Despite its incredibly gorgeous ornamentation and construction, The Five Devils is another contemporary film that feels ultimately shallow. The story is bloated with too many elements, and dropping the supernatural/horror atmosphere would have benefitted the picture. Make this a stylishly shot modern family drama, and it would have been better. Flesh out your non-white character, and that would be fantastic. I don’t think the movie is terrible, but I don’t imagine anyone lured in by the trailers or even the film’s opening ten minutes will feel very satisfied when we reach the picture’s final shot.
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