Director blown away by 'amazing' Adèle

Léa Mysius and Exarchopoulos talk about The Five Devils

by Richard Mowe

Adèle Exarchopoulos in The Five Devils
Adèle Exarchopoulos in The Five Devils Photo: Courtesy of BFI Flare
Much has happened to The Five Devils star Adèle Exarchopoulos since she burst on the scene alongside Léa Seydoux when, unusually, they both received a Palme d’Or each with director Abdellatif Kechiche also a winner, for Blue Is The Warmest Colour (La vie d’Adèle) from a jury headed by Steven Spielberg.

That was in 2013 when she was just 19, and the youngest recipient ever of the coveted award. There was a controversial fall-out between the actors and director. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux complained about Kechiche's tortuous process - in particular an explicit sex scene had taken ten days. Exarchopoulos said at the time that the director had made Seydoux hit her repeatedly across the face in a fight scene. Now, at 29, she’s mother to six-year-old Ismaël with an ex-boyfriend the French rapper Morgan Frémont otherwise known as Doums, with whom she shares parenting. Despite revealing her pregnancy at a Louis Vuitton fashion show as an ambassador for the brand she tends to keep her private life discreet and now shuns social media.

She has Greek roots through her grandfather but was born in Paris to a father who is a guitar teacher and a mother who works as a nurse. Her route into the business was through a drama class she attended when she was eight. She was chosen for a short film at the age of 12 when she stopped trying at school. She hated “the mechanical nature of teaching,” admitting she was a lazy pupil.

Adèle Exarchopoulos: 'I have the impression of growing up at the same time as my son, who’s now six'
Adèle Exarchopoulos: 'I have the impression of growing up at the same time as my son, who’s now six' Photo: Marie Rouge for Unifrance
We were gathered together in Paris at the Unifrance Rendez-vous with French Cinema earlier in the year with Léa Mysius, the director of The Five Devils (Les cinqs diables) which was presented at the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight last year.

The film follows Joanne (Exarchopoulos) and her daughter, Vicky (Sally Dramé), who have a loving yet distanced relationship. The child is particularly gifted at identifying and reproducing smells, a skill that pushes her obsession with her mother into strange territory. At the same time, Joanne is struggling with secrets of her own.

Mysius who made her feature film debut in 2017 with Ava, suggests the background came from a personal interest. “I’ve always been very curious about smells and aromas and scents since I was a child. I used to play with my twin sister and we [would] concoct different potions and try to make up cigarettes with flowers that we picked up in the grass and in the wilderness. It's an interest that I've been cultivating up to now. I like to guess the elements that make up a perfume on someone, or the smells that I smell in the street.

“The narrative works around these existential questions: how did I come into the world and why did I come into the world as me? Here, we understand that Vicky is the fruit of the love between two women, Joanne and Julia (played by Swala Emati), who couldn’t biologically conceive together, so the brother of one of them came into play… I didn’t want the film to be too cerebral. Choosing the fantasy genre allows me to talk about the meanderings of human obsessions in a playful, spectacular and chilling way.”

Exarchopoulos was not in her thoughts when she was writing the script. “At the beginning, it was still very abstract. When we thought of Adèle, who is exactly the opposite of the character, that was interesting. At the beginning of the story Joanne is a cold person, dead inside, really the opposite of Adèle, and it’s only as the film unfolds that the wall Joanne built to protect herself starts to crack, that her vitality appears. Adèle had to control her face, her gestures, to express nothing, until she explodes in the second part. But when it’s all interior, you can tell she’s boiling inside, because it’s Adèle, she oozes vitality, even if it’s contained.

The Five Devils director Léa Mysius: 'The narrative works around these existential questions: how did I come into the world and why did I come into the world as me?'
The Five Devils director Léa Mysius: 'The narrative works around these existential questions: how did I come into the world and why did I come into the world as me?' Photo: UniFrance
“She’s unbelievable. On set, she kept on making incredibly accurate suggestions. She did a lot of preparation to have the sporty physique she has in the film. She also had to be able to play two ages, 17 and 27, and two states: that of the present where she is well-behaved and subdued, in opposition to that of the past where she’s incandescent and full of dreams. Adèle has the beauty of a model and at the same time a roughness, lots of nuances, an iconic side, but also unaffected, which makes us immediately in empathy with her… we recognise ourselves in her. She’s an amazing talent; I was really blown away by her.”

Clearly the empathy between the two women contribute to the intimate nature of the project. Exarchopoulos explains: “It was almost like playing the opposite of me. I am very demonstrative with my child but the character of Joanne is much more reserved. Often playing opposite a child is more fun than playing with an adult. It was Sally’s first film role and she has a certain naivety.

“We made a lot of games, and it was really through the games that we discovered each other. I have the impression of growing up at the same time as my son, who’s now six. It was quite difficult becoming a mother at a relatively young age (23) at the same time as developing my career but it all seems to be working out.”

This year she was nominated for a best actress César award for Zero Fucks Given (Rien à foutre) by directors Julie Lecoustre and Emmanuel Marre in the illustrious company of Laure Calamy for Full Time, Juliette Binoche for Emmanuel Carrère’s Between Two Worlds, and the eventual winner Virginie Efira for Alice Winocour’s Paris Memories.

Exarchopoulos plays an air stewardess on a low-cost airline. “It was really an experience. Sometimes there were scenes shot on an iPhone. Honestly, it was really crazy and looks so much like a documentary. There was no makeup department — I was doing my own. It meant it was really hard to not lose yourself into the character. When you’re in the air you can’t really do anything connected to your life. For example, we were just about to take off and I got a message from my son’s school about an issue, and I was trying to handle it, but we had to take off, and I couldn’t do anything for several hours.”

Whatever else Exarchopoulos now has her feet firmly on the ground.

The Five Devils is playing at BFI Flare and on release in the UK and Ireland from 24 March, Germany 13 April, Austria 12 May

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