The Five Devils


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

The Five Devils
"While it's a road well-travelled, here it's a road travelled well." | Photo: Courtesy of KVIFF

Les Cinq Diables aren't real. There are other named clusters of mountains in the Rhone-Alpes. There are three linked communes that form a single sprawling skiing area named for the seven lakes to their west, Les 7 Laux. There's one mountain fewer making up the six beauties of Les Sybelles. In that context, five devils seems geographically appropriate, and within the film it could cover other sets as well.

If looking for another representative location the best match is probably not Les Deux Alpes but the numerically identical and nominatively similar Twin Peaks. This also starts with a fire, but there is room here for other readings. It's a second feature from Lea Mysius as director, and she again co-writes with Paul Guilhaume. Though they've worked on several other projects they're probably best known for 2017's Ava, not to be confused with the other film about a teenager of the same name from the same year.

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Our protagonists here are either side of adolescence, Adele Exarchopoulos as Joanne, before and after the birth of the precocious Vicky (Sally Drame). Husband Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue), Auntie Julia (Swala Emati), and friend and colleague Nadine (Daphne Patakia) could round out the eponymous quintet but that seems cursory for a film more intent on recursion.

I have the usual mild complaints about subtitling, a 'leave me alone' for a 'give me peace' and so forth is a weakness of automatic substitions for idiomatic constructions. There are plenty of questions left unanswered, and while that's the kind of note I like there are plenty for whom that kind of jazz jars. The notion of a place both real and unreal doesn't sit well with all, and while it's a road well-travelled, here it's a road travelled well.

Vicky has a preternatural ability, an olfactory grasp that recalls Suskind's Perfume, but her efforts at creation and preservation are even more magical than Grenouille's. Tétard might suit given how much more larval she is. In the pentad pole position often changes, but it's through Vicky that we see what others have seen.

It was not solely the important presence of Les Pompiers that reminded me of Titane. Fire and its fighting are both gateways to more magical territories. References to "peaty whisky" minded me of Doctor Sleep, but that in a context of small towns whose woods and lakes hold secrets that otherwise recalled the more grounded (less towering) works of Stephen King. The soundtrack includes work by bluesman Robert Johnson, rumoured to have made a deal at a crossroads, and the mountainous magic of Andy Robinson's Temple Of The Shaolin. The susurrus of sequencers and the shine of sequins are both part of the dance.

Screening nationally as part of Glasgow Film Festival's partnership with MUBI, it was described in its introduction as 'queer' and 'witchy'. Neither unfair, though sadly both would seem to attract unfairness in perception. There is room to map its relationships, its human geographies, its piques and valleys, its peaks and values. That determination to turn territory to ink does it a disservice, it is far more visceral than literal. There is a recipe depicted within it, more than one, in truth, but the outcome isn't measured, filthier, darker, fleshy in its thumping urgency.

That is present in performances, those mentioned but others too. Veteran actor Patrick Bouchitey is a complicating factor as (grand)pere, as is a duet (and the recurring use) of Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse Of The Heart. In an early moment its not clear if a sound we hear is the crackle of wood or the babble of brook and ultimately it may not matter. Both wear away.

There's mention of decay, of consumption, of the danger of cold. There's also stark beauty, glacial lakes, wooded vales, the unsettling angles across a taxi roof. There are moments where speeding vehicles may misdirect, but in these landscapes the shortest path may not be a straight line. Which brings us back to switchbacks, to circularity, to cycles, to recursion. In that repetition is strength, and though it may not do so in proportion to its title, to deliver as much in its hour and three quarters means Five Devils is a heck of a bargain.

Reviewed on: 14 Mar 2023
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Eight-year-old Vicky possesses a special power: a hyperacute sense of smell. She spends her days exploring this gift, and lives happily with her mother Joanne, a swimming teacher whom she adores exclusively - to the despair of her firefighter father. When her mysterious aunt Julia suddenly reappears in their lives, secrets from their past resurface both violently and magically.
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Director: Léa Mysius

Writer: Paul Guilhaume, Léa Mysius

Starring: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Daphne Patakia, Noée Abita, Patrick Bouchitey, Moustapha Mbengue, Sally Dramé, Swala Emati

Year: 2022

Runtime: 103 minutes

Country: France

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If you like this, try:

Les Diaboliques
The Falling
The Wall