Overlook Film Festival 2023 Review: The Five Devils

One of the most interesting aspects of French genre film is how it often brings about new concepts in thought-provoking, genre-defying ways. Overlook Film Festival audiences got a taste of that in the new film, The Five Devils. In the film, a little girl named Vicky lives a happy life with her mom and dad in a small French town. Yet Vicky is special; she has a heightened sense of smell and can even sniff out her mother while blindfolded in the woods. When Vicky’s estranged aunt shows up, her entire life is thrown upside down as she discovers her sense of smell also gives her the ability to travel back in time and see her mother and aunt when they were younger, revealing long kept secrets of the past.

Director Léa Mysius (Ava) co-wrote The Five Devils with Paul Guilhaume (Ava). This is a truly unique film. At a glance, it seems like a very emotional, queer drama about forbidden love, small-town hate, and traumatic events that can change the trajectory of your life. There is a beautiful, tragic, and moving love story at the core of this film that the audience is given a unique window into as the story bounces to different points in the lives of two women. From being introduced to these women after they’ve been estranged for a decade, to the moment they first met, and back and forth in time, the audience is able to put the pieces of their love story together.

Yet the inclusion of Vicky and her unique abilities adds a sort of supernatural element in how she can time travel using her sense of smell. She even makes what could be considered spell jars, each jar capturing a specific scent, often the scent of a person close to her like her mother. It isn’t until the aunt arrives and Vicky finds an unlabeled glass vial with a strange scent in it that she discovers combining that smell with her jars causes Vicky to pass out and be transported into the past. This implies Vicky inherited this ability from her father’s side, which would explain why her aunt had the vial in the first place. This familial connection and lore is something I wish the film had taken a deeper look at. Scent can already be a very powerful sense that evoke strong emotions and memories, but the idea that a scent could be so overwhelming it takes you back to a specific moment in time is a power many will wish they possessed. While The Five Devils is very much about Vicky and her power, it is also about her becoming mature enough to accept the fate of her family.

The performances in The Five Devils are wonderful and completely engrossing to watch. Sally Dramé makes her acting debut as the young Vicky. One of the things that makes Dramé’s performance so mesmerizing is how she balances Vicky’s young naiveté with her growing understanding of her abilities and the relationship dynamics among the adults around her. There is so much growth with this character throughout, especially in how she initially perceives her aunt as a threat to her family, eventually understanding the depth of love between her aunt and her mother. While Vicky is very much a character with her own motivations and story, she is also essentially a narrator for the audience. Everything we learn about these people, we learn from Vicky’s perspective. She is the guide and Dramé excels in that role.

Two other beautiful performances come from Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Colour) as Vicky’s mother, Joanne, and Swala Emati making her feature-film debut as Vicky’s aunt, Julia. Separately, both Exarchopoulos and Emati give outstanding performances. But where they truly shine is in the scenes they have together. Exarchopoulos and Emati have electric on-screen chemistry as Joanne and Julia, making the audience feel both the tension and the love between these two fascinating characters. Exarchopoulos and Dramé also have lovely chemistry together as mother and daughter, easily convincing the audience of the maternal bond they share.

Even without the use of elaborate effects, The Five Devils manages to be a striking film to look at. It takes on a graininess that gives the film a vintage feel. There’s even a general lack of technology, with the exception of a rogue cellphone here and there, that makes the film and its story feel timeless. On top of that, The Five Devils features absolutely magnificent cinematography and color work. One specific scene stands out in which the family goes to a karaoke bar, all of them bathed in red and orange light, then the audience sees Joanne through Vicky’s eyes as she wears kaleidoscope glasses, conveying the beauty, love, and adoration. From taking in the breathtaking scenery to focusing on a single face, there is artistry and attention to detail that has to be admired.

The Five Devils is a breathtaking, genre-bending film that speaks to the power of love and memory through scent. It perfectly uses magical realism to show how messy relationships can be, especially when faced with outside scrutiny and influence. Mysius and Guilhaume deliver a compelling story that is wholly unique. It also boasts an excellent cast delivering remarkable performances, especially considering this is the acting debut for two of the stars. With striking visuals to accompany such a riveting tale and the engrossing performances, The Five Devils is a film genre fans will not want to miss.


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