Thursday 16 March 2023

BFI Flare: The Five Devils (Léa Mysius, 2022)

Five years and numerous screenplays on from her directorial feature debut Ava, Léa Mysius once again steps behind the camera for The Five Devils, which screens today and tomorrow at BFI Flare.  As a screenwriter, Mysius has collaborated with the likes of Arnaud Desplechin, Claire Denis, Jacques Audiard and André Téchiné, and that The Five Devils can hold its own against anything else in Mysius' filmography says much about its tremendous quality.  Of the films Mysius has written for and with others, Desplechin's somewhat underrated Ismael's Ghosts—a quite wonderful distillation of its director's main themes—is the one that has most in common with The Five Devils; both films are narratively complex works that deal with past trauma in a sophisticated, nuanced way.  Perhaps what is most striking about The Five Devils is that at no point does it feel like the work of a director who has made just one previous feature.   

Of course, it is quite reasonable to conclude that Mysius' projects with Denis, Audiard et al. have allowed her to develop as a filmmaker in a way that goes far beyond the experience of writing and directing Ava.  In Ava, Mysius drew a brave, César-nominated turn from the excellent Laure Calamy, and The Five Devils features an equally impressive lead performance, with Blue Is the Warmest Colour's Adèle Exarchopoulos stepping up as put-upon swimming instructor Joanne.  Joanne's young daughter Vicky (Sally Dramé)—who is relentlessly bullied by her schoolmates on account of her hairstyle—possesses an otherworldly ability to both detect and recreate scents.  Vicky's dad, taciturn fireman Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue), is a somewhat distant husband to Joanne, and the strain on the couple's marriage increases with the arrival of Jimmy's sister Julia (Swala Emati), who lodges with the family upon her release from prison.  

With the sole exception of Jimmy, no one is pleased to see Julia back in town.  Vicky—who immediately noticed the scent of alcohol on her aunt—sets about digging into Julia's murky past, and to do this she uses her finely tuned sense of smell to travel back in time.  From this point on, the narrative seesaws between past and present, often with no clear signpost as to which is which; Vicky's appearance is identical in both timelines, while her parents and Julia look much the same then as now.  The main temporal reference point takes the form of Joanne's colleague Nadine (Daphné Patakia) who, in the present day, bears severe facial scars.  As the film progresses and Vicky continues her forays into the past, the backstories of Joanne, Nadine, Jimmy and Julia are filled in; it isn't a spoiler to say that there aren't many uplifting moments to be had as Vicky navigates this minefield of memories—although a karaoke rendition of Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" provides a few minutes of near-levity.

The Five Devils' brand of magical realism strongly recalls that of Céline Sciamma's Petite Maman, but whereas that film saw time travel bringing comfort to its young protagonist, The Five Devils uses memories merely to illuminate the present.  Despite the warmth of its tactile 35mm cinematography, Mysius' film is, at its core, as icy as the lake that Joanne regularly uses for early morning dips (despite presumably having free, unlimited use of a heated indoor pool—read into that what you will).  Exarchopoulos and Dramé give superb performances as the mother and daughter caught in the maelstrom of the past, while Belgian actress Patakia makes the most of her limited screen time to impress as Nadine, who is arguably the most intriguing character in a film that is by no means short on mystery.  Criminally overlooked at last month's Césars, where its solitary nomination (for Guillaume Marien's fine visual effects) predictably came to nothing, The Five Devils is a terrific, mature and highly intelligent work, one that demands repeated viewing. 

Darren Arnold

Images: Le Pacte