Devil May Care: Mysius Delivers Intriguing but Disappointing Romantic Genre Mishmash
For her sophomore feature debut, director/screenwriter Léa Mysius aims high and falls hard with Les Cinq diables (The Five Devils), a complex array of genre elements which forgets to inject any devilry in the details. An interesting cast headlined by Adèle Exarchopoulos all tend to behave as if they’re characters from different realms adding to a lack of cohesion and characterization which would at least allow a bridge between the ambiguous genre elements which are too loosely and conveniently administered to remain provocative. Stilted communication between its quintet of troubled souls grappling with a trauma from the past in a small community at the foot of the Alps furthers this frustration.
Still there are elements which suggest a heady genre gem could have really soared had the script from Mysius and Paul Guilhaume (the DP on her 2017 debut, Ava) brushed up on coalescing these elements more effectively. As is, with only a handful of bright spots, it’s a narrative which calls attention to glaring plot holes and contradictory motivations.
In a village located in the snowy foothills of the Alps, Joanne (Exarchopoulos) works as a swimming instructor at the eponymous sports center, where her young daughter Vicky (Sally Dramé) also tags along. A precocious child who has a preternatural sense of smell, collecting samples and jars and recreating scents through formulas created in her mind, she’s also an outcast at school, being the only biracial child. Her father Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue) is a local firefighter, and trouble begins when his sister Julia (Swala Emati) shows up at his behest to stay with them. This causes a stir in the community because a decade prior, Julia set a fire which injured several villagers at a holiday event, including her peer, Nadine (Daphne Patakia), who holds a flame for Jimmy. Vicky is immediately suspicious of her aunt thanks to Joanne’s behavior. Recreating Julia’s scent with a viscous liquid from a mysterious blue vial found in her aunt’s handbag, the fumes cause Vicky to pass out, physically transporting her into the past, where she witnesses her mother’s secret romance with her aunt. However, Julia is able to see Vicky during these transports, and the child’s reoccurring travels to the past were moments which exacerbated the tragedy transpiring the decade prior.
While Vicky’s inability to articulate the nature or scope of her inherent skills is logical, how everyone else reacts tends to read as compartmentalized convenience. Jimmy’s (who is a naggingly underwritten character) feelings for his sister and his knowledge of the love she holds for Joanne, for instance, is never addressed. Inviting Vicky to stay with them would seem an invitation to despair. Then there’s Vicky, plagued by visions of a young girl who ends up being her niece, yet only engages in mild wariness towards the child when one would assume she would communicate this major revelation to Joanne. Although some efforts were made to symbolize how Jimmy and Joanne are a mismatched pair since he’s a firefighter and she’s throwing herself into icy cold, these codes are also unclear. Joanne is engaging in a sort of self-punishment or flagellation in response to the warmth she misses in Julia, a fire starter. Additionally, how Vicky’s entries into the past, which, of course, were the impetus for Julia’s distress and ultimate tragedy, is reflected in a convenient linear manner. This lends a predictability for the unsurprising denouement which robs the film of feeling impactful in any way. A final shot hinting at a more complex pattern does little to reinstate any intrigue.
Early sequences take some time to explain Vicky’s innate abilities, and child actor Sally Dramé is a likable screen presence. Her bond with her mother feels a bit too ambivalent, however, left to Exarchopolous having to periodically make reassuring statements because the film tells us the obvious, rather than showing. A shrill Daphne Patakia (Benedetta, 2021) has a poorly choreographed freak out, screaming at Joanne how she’s stolen her life, even though this is plainly evident. Instead, we should have a better inkling of why and how Jimmy and Joanne came to be in the wake of Julia’s actions.
Named for the sports resort where Joanne works as a lifeguard/instructor, the title is also a reference to the five principal characters, even though only two of them seem to be involved in anything remotely devilish. Not explaining how or why also plays into stereotypes as it concerns two Senegelese characters and no one else. Still, the ideas initially suggested are compelling, though eventually neutered.
Although nearly all sequences set in the present feel inauthentic, the flashbacks to Julia and Joanne’s courtship often feels alive and vibrant. Parallel scenes utilizing “Total Eclipse of the Heart ” generate an emotional response, but they feel adrift in a film which doesn’t harness or take advantage of the power these moments have. Paul Guilhaume also serves as DP, capturing an isolated, chilly climate rife for melting in the intended heat of the storyline, but the inferno displayed is only superficial.
There are several moments which attempt to be visually evocative, such as Vicky viewing her mother through orange tinted kaleidoscope images, suggesting a woman with multiple personas, all on fire. But the whole is less than the sum of its intersecting parts, a disappointment considering the promise evident in Mysius’ first film, Ava.
Reviewed on May 25th at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival – Directors’ Fortnight. 95 Mins