The Five Devils Casts a Bewitching and Sensual Spell Over a Queer Romance
The French fantasy film will leave you spellbound.
A fire rages powerfully as a group of stage-ready gymnasts cry and scream at its edge. One turns to show her face and looks straight at the camera, anguish and a hint of betrayal radiating through her eyes as they burn a hole, almost, into the o-zone layer between film and audience. Abruptly, we cut to a young girl throwing herself upright in bed, as if she had just witnessed the moment for herself. That is our introduction into the world of The Five Devils, a mystical and fantasy-tinged French-language drama that will enchant you and leave you spellbound in the wake of its narrative — and supernatural — power.
Ava director Lea Mysius’ second feature is a wholly unique story that feels like a folktale, centered on the highly gifted Vicky (the incredible Sally Dramé). At 8 years old, she is already in tune with her most special skill: her sense of smell. While living in a secluded French village at the foot of a mountain with her parents, Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue), she bottles different smells and continues to foster a bond with her mother. But when her father’s sister Julia (Swala Emati) unexpectedly returns to the village after many years in prison, she ushers in a violent and passionate past that Vicky soon discovers.
The most standout element of Mysius’ feature is its cast. The film is utterly stacked, and the group of actors assembled for these roles are not only individual powerhouses but they have incredible chemistry, or lack thereof where it applies. Exarchopoulos is on fire as Joanne, a complicated and charismatic mother coming to terms with who she always knew she was. She’s always been an inspired performer, but this role is neck and neck with her best, including her breakout role in Blue Is the Warmest Color. Dramé is easily one of the best young actor discoveries in years, and she commands the focus of the film with curiosity and a pure childish intensity that so many people lose with age.
Emati’s Julia is quietly intriguing and mysterious, giving so much with simply her eyes. The way she looks at the other characters in the film reveals all, but at the same time hides so much more. Mbengue’s Jimmy is perhaps the most understated of the performances, but his is crucial to the family dynamic of the film. His stoic yet understanding demeanor makes him a consummate father, one you root for and want to see find emotional stability. He and Exarchopoulos exist at opposite ends of thick tension and it is fascinating to watch them orbit one another throughout the film. Across the board, the impeccable cast lays the groundwork for a captivating film.
Great acting will certainly draw in viewers, but visual and auditory elements fill out the world of the movie and make it feel real. The Five Devils does this in spades. The film has a rich and foreboding score that slots itself in nicely with the mythos that the narrative shapes. It makes the story’s events feel that much more urgent and otherworldly, and it does as well in punctuating the movie’s climactic moments as it does with the film’s more introspective scenes and their delicate tonal inquiries. The film’s striking visuals bring it all together — a gorgeous mountain landscape is shot with care and dedication, while a pivotal scene in a karaoke bar gives the film a burst of brightness.
The core of this film, though, lies in the intricate plot that unfolds over the course of two timelines. The way Mysius decides to tell this story is the foundation of why it is so strong, because it allows the audience to discover — alongside Vicky, in real time — everything that objectively led to the film’s current timeline. It isn’t one person or another’s version of the events, it’s just the truth of what happened between Joanne, Julia, Jimmy, and their other friends from the Five Devils sports center 10 years prior. In the juxtaposition of the present and the past, the narrative gains the ability to transcend those timelines and take on the feeling of something bigger at work. The Five Devils smells of folklore and legend, the kind of story that gets passed down and remembered. In that way, it’s fitting the mystical and downright magical film centers on the enduring power of queer love.
The way this film centers the magic of queer love — and how it can win in the end, not just be the casualty — proves we need as many variations on the queer romance as we do on straight ones. Fantastical straight love stories have existed for as long as we can remember, and we are quick to expand and cultivate those stories … but we have yet to afford that kind of explorative grace to queer couples in media and storytelling. The Five Devils offers audiences an enrapturing queer romance that blends genres and bleeds with an intriguing specificity that sets it apart from the usual genre fare — if you choose to go on the journey with it. And you should, because you will not find another one like it.