Joanne (Adle Exarchopoulos) slips through the wintery woods, burying herself under twigs in an attempt to hide from her blindfolded daughter. But no matter how far she goes or how much of the dead foliage she pulls over herself, she cant disguise her scent from the little girls preternatural sense of smell. Vicky (Sally Dram) seems pleased with the game and with her mothers acknowledgement of her special ability. Her mother seems frightened, trying to run away not only from her daughters strange skill but also from motherhood and her seemingly perfect suburban life. A sinister undercurrent pulses through the gray trees and cold air. Who is the monster here? The daughter with the superpower, or her superhumanly beautiful mother?
Magic, horror, romance, and melodrama, along with dashes of thriller and mystery, are the key ingredients in the queer, witchy potion that invokes French director La Mysiuss The Five Devils (2022), a title that certainly primes us to look for not just one but several monsters.
In addition to mixing genres, this cinematic cauldron stirs in challenges to common narrative devices: deepening the mysterious stranger-comes-to-visit scenario, confronting the magical Negro stereotype, toying with the dark forest and sleepy village settings of fairy tales, elevating soapy stories of unrequited love and mangled love triangles, exploring the dark underbelly of sweet suburban life. The olio is not overwhelming at all because really, its not a horror movie, nor a speculative movie, nor a romance, nor a melodrama. It is all part of a single genre: Gothic.
A sense of guilt and blame permeates the film, but like a broken compass, its hard to know where to point fingers.
Think back to the classic Victorian and Gothic novels of the 19th century: Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are not simply romances but actually quite frightening and dramatic stories (wives in attics, unrequited love, abandonment, suicide, affairs, mismatched marriages, even a little magic). If we go back another century to these classic tales 18th-century predecessors (think Ann Radcliffe), we find romances snagged by ghost stories, exotic locales, strangers with mysterious pasts. In short, The Five Devils is a cinematic Gothic novel for the contemporary age.
The racial and exotic tropes of the Gothic novel are reexamined in eight-year-old Vickys interracial family, and marginalized perspectives are re-centered. Joanne and her husband, Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue), already have a tense relationship when things take an ominous turn upon the arrival of his sister, Julia (Swala Emati). Joanne wants Julia out and seems frightened of her, and Vicky, fearing a threat to fragile familial stability, begins to torment Julia in an attempt to get rid of her.
Vicky and Julias competition for Joannes affection feels warped, and the camera lingers on Joannes graceful form and beauty-pageant looks in a way that indicates both the oppressiveness and power of the white European ideal of attractiveness. The Gothic aestheticalready ripe for gender and racial analysisbecomes fertile ground for exploring legacies of homophobia, colonialism and racism, and gender roles in contemporary France.
In the story, certain scentsthe kind that metaphorically transport us to a specific time and placeallow Vicky to literally time travel. Like a budding witch, Vicky concocts odorous potions to conjure certain memories, and she seeks other peoples scent memories while sleuthing through her mother and aunts mysterious and entwined pasts.
The film announces its passion, as if just beneath the quiet, passive surface of the characters a scream is throbbing in their throats.
As Vicky travels to Julia and Joannes teenage days, Joannes fears and anxieties about Julia become more complex as we begin to question who is at fault in their story. Upon Julia and Joannes first meeting, the five white French girls on the gymnastics team line up and strike poses drenched with attitude as they observe the newcomer, a daughter of Senegalese immigrants.
As Julia and Joannes story progresses in the present day and Vicky learns more in the past, we realize that Julia and Joanne are in love, but Joanne represses her desires. (Adding a level of tension is the fact that when Vicky time travels, Julia is the only one who can see her, hallucinations that later lead to Julias mental health issues and alcohol abuse.)
From the start, we know Joanne and Julia were involved in a fire in their teen years that left their friend (and Jimmys ex) Nadine (Daphne Patakia) permanently scarred and disfigured. A sense of guilt and blame permeates the film, but like a broken compass, its hard to know where to point fingers. Now Joanne and Nadine (who is also outraged by Julias reappearance) work at the rec center, called The Five Devils, where Joanne and Jimmys all-too-perfect wedding photo looms over the pool, ridiculing Nadines broken heart.
Exarchopoulos plays the part of the pretty, popular girl grown into a moody and disappointed woman, but she brings a tenderness to the role that makes us as riveted by her as Vicky and Julia are. Emati blends stoicism and mental duress in a chameleonic manner that dares us to misjudge or mistrust her and that serves to deepen the pain of her friends and familys betrayal. Drams performance is impressive; though a child, she carries the film. Relying on her point of view is a bold choice considering the sexually charged thematic concerns of the film.
But in some ways Vickys filter justifies the Gothic vibes by representing the excitement and anxiety resulting from a budding understanding of sex and sexuality, racial identity and gender roles, difficult adult relationships, and an unstable family. As the characters reveal themselves, the key incantation becomes less about who the devils are and more about how we demonize each other.
I was enraptured by The Five Devils the moment the film opened on the insurmountable mountains of France with Soap&Skins anthemic Me and the Devil seeping from the landscape. The film announces its passion, as if just beneath the quiet, passive surface of the characters a scream is throbbing in their throats, a scream that would be futile against those imposing mountains. You know a movie that begins with that kind of operatic energy has to bust at some point. Fortunately, the emotional landslide of this film is worth enduring its icy plunge.