The most visceral films are often described as sensory experiences. But how can a visual medium translate the sensations of smell without the aid of a John Waters-style scratch-and-sniff card? This is a stylistic quandary French filmmaker Léa Mysius approaches with ease in her accomplished sophomore feature The Five Devils, an entrancing time travel drama in which the odors of the natural world give way to the memories of those who walked there before. Its mythology is deliberately freed of explanation so we may have a child’s-eye view into the timeline-bending narrative––a striking decision that is likely to leave those wanting a straightforward explainer of how it all works firmly in the cold. It’s a film that rewards fantastical curiosity, not literal inquisitiveness, using its borderline-science fiction conceit as a jumping-off point for a more intimate examination of the still-fresh wounds affecting a seemingly functional family unit.
Set at the foot of the French Alps, whose five peaks (nicknamed “Le Cinq Diables”) give the film its title, the film introduces us to swimming instructor and former gymnast Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos), whose seemingly idyllic life is showing clear cracks to the outside world. These will soon be uncovered by her young daughter Vicky (newcomer Sally Dramé), who starts displaying an unusually heightened sense of smell: she’s able to detect people and objects from a significant distance, collecting many items from the outside world to create unusual concoctions of her own in jars labeled after the people in her life.
It’s around this time Joanne’s sister-in-law Julia (Swala Emati) re-enters her life. She has a mysterious, tortured past she wishes to keep at arm’s length from her present, due to violent outbursts where she claimed to see the image of a young girl staring back at her. Suddenly Vicky’s personalized aromas within her “mother” jar start leading her back in time with every whiff, where she gets to witness her mother and auntie’s thorny history together unravel almost in real-time. The fact that she’s the girl in Julia’s past hallucinations, visible to nobody but her, isn’t some big reveal. The tension instead derives from the repressed memories Julia’s sudden reappearance brings up for everybody.
Mysius’ film invites immediate comparisons to Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman, another allegorical time-traveling tale more concerned with the bonds between generations than the expository storytelling commonplace within science fiction. That both filmmakers previously collaborated on the screenplay for Jacques Audiard’s Paris, 13th District is only likely to drive this surface-level comparison further in many viewers’ minds, even as Mysius has made a film that is less instantly warm and inviting. By contrast, it’s easy to imagine The Five Devils being written off as cold simply because it’s detached from the supernatural rules guiding its narrative, aiming to explore it from a youthful perspective where even literal explanations would fail to make logical sense.
It would be a shame to see The Five Devils criticized in this manner, not least because its depiction of a mother-daughter relationship is one of its strongest assets. From the opening this pair are often spotted together, Vicky even tagging along to one of her mother’s pool aerobics classes, giddily demonstrating every move with glee to the elderly attendees. Exarchopoulos’ matriarch displays a similar curiosity when the pair are out in the woods. Her daughter seeks new scents to capture––a striking sequence where what initially seems like a game blossoms into a mother subtly testing the limits of a superpower her daughter has long had, which she’s overlooked for too long. Exarchopoulos is fantastic here, managing to strike a balance between parental sensitivity and walking enigma: someone attuned to the needs of her daughter––such as in an amusing sequence where she berates the parents of her school bullies––who still refuses to open up beyond her basic responsibilities as a carer.
Mysius’ greatest trick might be convincing you that Julia, a woman spoken of in hushed tones throughout the village due to past sins, is the mysterious figure whose reality we’re unraveling in each time-traveling excursion. In actuality it’s the seemingly normal mother who has carefully crafted constructed every aspect of her domestic and professional lives to avoid addressing unresolved past emotions.
Despite genre inclinations, it makes for an intriguing companion to Mysius’ debut feature––2017’s Ava, another coming-of-age tale directly tied to the relationship between the young protagonist’s senses and the world she has come to know. That was a more down-to-Earth tale of course, a Catherine Breillat-indebted account of a 13-year-old’s final summer of reckless abandon before losing her sight, and as such didn’t fully prepare viewers for her sudden transition to high-concept genre storytelling. It’s a deeply transfixing sophomore feature that, beneath genre artifice, tells a much more direct tale of familial bonds than her debut. Overlook the mysterious time-traveling conceit and you’ll find an irresistibly prickly drama about family and generational trauma.
The Five Devils screens at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema on March 4 & 8 and opens on March 24 via MUBI.