The sophomore feature from director Léa Mysius is an enchanting work of near-unclassifiable fantasy, an evocative tale that links the sense of smell with long-repressed memories, and in doing so crafts one of the year’s most unique coming of age tales.
Premiering to acclaim at last year’s Cannes Director’s Fortnight, The Five Devils tells the story of Vicky (newcomer Sally Dramé), a young child who exhibits a powerful sense of smell, who starts to uncover the memories of her mother (Joanne, played by Adèle Exarchopoulos) from shortly before she was born via magic potions she creates and sniffs. It’s a high concept tale on paper, but one that uses its borderline science fiction conceit to explore the affects of long-repressed emotions on a family unit.
Ahead of the film arriving in theaters via MUBI this Friday, The Film Stage recently caught up with writer/director Mysius to discuss the film, the challenges of depicting the sensory experience of smell in a purely visual medium, and the unique audition process she came up with to find her young star.
The Film Stage: Both of your directorial efforts have been coming-of-age films linked to senses; Ava was about a teen losing her eyesight, and now The Five Devils follows a young girl discovering her family’s past through smell. Do you see Ava and The Five Devils as being thematically linked beyond that?
Léa Mysius: Well, I think that––of course––as a filmmaker I do have some obsessions, but I still don’t quite identify them on my own. I myself am only starting to identify them, although for now I’ve only made two movies––we’ll see how this changes in the future.
I think the common thread between the films is that these are stories about kids or young teenagers, and I’ve tried to analyze why it is I’m trying to talk about childhood so much. I’ve told myself it’s because I’m not too far away from my own childhood, but that I also have enough distance from it to start getting the feeling that I’m losing touch with it. It’s a little weird, but it’s as if my naive memories of my childhood are still alive the way they could be in the head of a child.
I really don’t know why I have all this desire to talk about young people and their senses. I think it’s because my approach to cinema is very physical and very sensual, and there’s a cinematographic component to exploring them; that was easy to depict in the first film, but here what interested me was that I needed to film the invisible. This was a challenge that opened up in front of me.
What are some of the challenges that come with attempting to depict the sense of smell in a purely visual medium?
Well, the first challenge is finding out exactly how you can visualize the invisible. I wasn’t interested by the visual idea of a character smelling something, which the audience then sees onscreen––I wanted to create a distance between the image and the scent of it. I didn’t want to depict this in a way that was too literal.
I knew I wanted the scent to bring in memories, and evoke a reaction that would be Proustian. But in this case it’s the parent’s memories that pop up, which is where the movie becomes fantasy, and it allows me to talk about the process of creation. Scents are visualized through the little jars Vicky has and all of the objects she uses to make what’s inside them, which is a doorway into her memories.
I wanted to create something that goes beyond images. I wanted to show the hidden images and create something that speaks to people’s subconscious so that when the viewer leaves the cinema there’s other images that pop up within them and everybody can experience it on different levels.
I read that whilst casting the role of Vicky, you asked the young actresses to make potions of their own. How did this process help you find your star Sally Dramé?
When you go through a casting process with children, it’s important to know what to ask them the first time you meet, because it can be very intimidating for them. And I think that there are some kids who couldn’t care less, but most of them tend to be shy. And so I wanted an activity that would allow the child to forget where they were and let them be able to be themselves.
In that initial audition Sally wasn’t very good in terms of her acting; she didn’t perform well, as she wasn’t at ease with what she was doing. But I really liked the energy that she gave out, and I could see her in the future as Vicky even though she didn’t look like what I had imagined the character to look like. She was shy and really blocked in the activity, but what allowed me to choose her was that I could see her body, which was a little weird, and these big eyes that seemed timeless. They looked like she had already lived many lives, and yet at the same time she read perfectly as a very little girl who hasn’t experienced anything yet, which I found really interesting in her.
The very first time we got together I asked her to dance. And that’s when I really fell in love with her, because she had this sort of uneasy side to her, very goofy and clumsy. I didn’t really ask her to do any specific parts of the script because that was something that would come later, and we got to it by working together a lot so that she would be able to inhabit the character and be inhabited by the character. And that’s how she became Vicky.
The first image you thought of prior to writing the screenplay was the striking opening shot, where we see Joanne in front of the fire. How did the character of Joanne develop from that initial thought?
That image came first, but when I came up with the idea of Vicky and the little jars I put that initial fire imagery on the back burner. When I began developing the character of Joanne, this fire concept would keep coming back––it’s a visual motif that has appeared in some way in all of my shorts, and even in Ava there’s a little fire at the end. I felt that it was something with a central importance as it kept putting itself at the forefront of the story––it sprang back to life each time I had forgotten about this woman in front of the fire. It’s almost like it was my subconscious guiding me in shaping the story.
As the story progresses, we learn through her memories that Joanne has long-repressed romantic feelings which she buried in order to forge a heteronormative family life. How did The Five Devils develop into a tale of queer repression during the writing stages?
I had originally imagined a woman that wasn’t necessarily happy in her life; I don’t know why. In the beginning it’s as if she was emotionally asleep––a sleepy volcano that kept on swimming in that cold lake because it was almost freezing and she needed to kill the fire. And so I already had that image around the fire, but I wasn’t fully conscious of it. I didn’t know how to connect the two together, but then I built the story to get to it.
It was almost a subconscious kind of approach, as all of a sudden I had this idea of this woman who was inspired by some friends of mine. They were going through this experience where they felt dead on the outside and had more intense emotions on the inside, and they kept going on as if everything was fine. We as viewers can perceive that in Joanne, and so does Vicky; it allows this inner fire to resurface and reignite, and lets everything around it burn.
Since Ava you’ve worked with the likes of Jacques Audiard, Claire Denis, and Arnaud Desplechin on several screenplays. Was there anything you learned whilst working with them that proved insightful on this project?
I learned a lot. It’s as if I had a lot more experience than I actually have, so to speak, because it’s as if I already made many more movies before this second one! When I write for somebody I launch myself in their vision and their way of viewing things; my gaze is their gaze, I see things through their eyes. Which I find very enriching, especially when you’re talking about those filmmakers who have such strong visions.
Trying to understand the way somebody sees allows you to refine your own vision, and I find that it sharpens it too. What I find interesting is to see the movie that they end up making based on the script we wrote together, and I always think that I never would have made a movie like that based on that script. It allows me to realize that we’re not the same people, and also highlights that working with other filmmakers is very enriching on both a technical and human level.
The Five Devils opens in theaters on March 24 and arrives on MUBI on May 12.