Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The Five Devils

Vicky Soler is sort of like Inuyasha or Goku from Dragon Ball, but instead of an anime hero, she is a bullied biracial French girl, who happens to have an uncannily powerful sense of smell. She can identify and reproduce anyone’s smell—and maybe even use that aroma to travel into their past. Her family’s traumatic history turns out to be a really bad trip in Lea Mysius’s The Five Devils, which opens Friday in New York.

Vicky’s mother Joanne is distant, but that just makes her daughter even more codependent. Her parents have a polite but obviously passionless marriage—to the point that even Joanne’s crusty old father is offering her Dr. Ruth advice. Young Soler has saved her mother’s scent, via some of her excess body lotion, which she uses for a hit of motherly togetherness whenever Soler cannot be bothered with her daughter. However, her latest huffs take her back in time, to her mother’s high school years.

Those time-travel interludes take on greater significance when she finally meets her Aunt Julia, her father Jimmy’s sister, who was recently been released from prison. Everyone in their small Alpine town seems to know about Julia Soler’s episode, except Vicky. Regardless, she soon gets an eyeful of her mother’s erotically charged relationship with Aunt Julia, before she married Vicky’s father. Weirder still, the teenaged Aunt Julia of the past, appears to know when Vicky is watching.

Five Devils
is hard to exactly classify because it contains slippery elements of time-travel science fiction, dark fantasy, and magical realism, but the underlying fantastical engine driving the film mostly works. When you get the full picture of the ironic cycle the family is caught up in, it really is quite compelling. Viewers should still be warned, the first ten or fifteen minutes of scene-setting and dramatic establishment are rather cold and standoffish, but once the film gets going in earnest, it is strangely hypnotic.

Young Sally Drame is terrific as Vicky. We immediately feel her need for emotional validation, but she can also be a little unnerving, when appropriate. Adele Exarchopoulos’s performance as Joanne is reserved, but acutely expressive of a plethora of neuroses, resentments, and disappointments. Jimmy Soler is an even more aloof character, but Moustapha Mbengue’s portrayal is notably dignified and humanizing.

There are a few kinks in the screenplay (by Mysius and Paul Guilhaume) that should have been worked out, but the central premise is refreshingly original. The cast sells it persuasively, while Mysius and Guilhaume, as the cinematographer, give the film an ominous look and tone, despite the sunny Alpine setting. Highly recommended for mature audiences,
Five Devils opens Friday (3/24) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.