The film, which had its UK premiere this month at the Glasgow Film Festival, takes a fresh approach to familial relationships and trauma—unlocking the past and exploring its competing possibilities. The film is certainly flawed, with underdeveloped writing and themes, but it is also captivating—combining sinister events and terrifying images, while being littered with moments of intimate emotional connection. The Five Devils stays with you in ways that are not wholly explainable, it is a starkly original work that has an unspoken violence pulsing throughout.
The film is told from the perspective of school-age Vicky (Sally Dramé), daughter of Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos). Joanne is a swimming teacher, who works alongside Nadine (Daphné Patakia), and has been married for ten years to Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue), who works as a firefighter. Shortly into the film, Jimmy’s sister, Julia (Swala Emati), is invited to stay. Julia has just been released from prison and the reaction from Joanne is hostile. Something is amiss. When Vicky, who has special abilities, discovers she can travel in time, she observes the chilling events of a decade earlier and the life-altering consequences for all involved—herself included—but is she invisible?
The Five Devils is a disconcerting watch. The key opening image: a building ablaze, a group of girls standing watching, one turns around, she stares back directly at the camera, it’s Joanne—caught between rage, devastation, bewilderment, desire—what does her look mean? In this disturbing context, the film’s subject matter covers a range of physical, emotional and relational destructiveness—the scarring history that families carry into the present. Racism and homophobia also linger, though neither is addressed in significant depth. We join Vicky as she circumambulates her mother and father’s past. Her discoveries evoke confusion and jealousy, and awaken her base human instinct to exist.
The performances in The Five Devils are beautifully suppressed, they boil under with rage and regret. There’s plenty for our eyes to investigate. We search for something to give the past away, but the plot moves steadily through facial expressions and flashbacks. Adèle Exarchopoulos shines as a semi-rueful mother, held back and holding herself back at the same time. Her relationship with her peculiar daughter is one of frustration and admiration. Joanne goes open-water swimming in a freezing lake tucked amongst the idyllic mountainsides. Vicky watches and times her swims, blowing the whistle when it’s too dangerous to stay in, afterwards she collects smells and puts them in jars. Sally Dramé plays the whimsical side of Vicky perfectly, but there is a genuine terror beneath the surface.
The themes of The Five Devils are interesting but not always well-handled. Racism and homophobia are more mechanisms for the plot than topics discussed in their own right, and the focus on the mutual exclusivity of erotic and paternal love is a bit clumsy. At the same time, the dialogue can feel contrived—spoken questions and answers don’t always appear as couched in mystery as the rest of the film. The writing can draw attention to itself as it attempts to drive home a specific tension point. The film can be overly-theatrical—it lunges after resonance, thinking quick kineticism can make up for patient development of chemistry. Yet, living by the sword, the unchecked explosiveness also leads to some well-crafted moments of release—emotional catharsis—in an otherwise brooding film. The film hits, though it doesn’t always convince it knows what it’s doing.
The Five Devils is a singular and intriguing film from an exciting new director. The film holds your attention and builds well to a startling conclusion. There is a brilliant use of music and the film switches moods without feeling too disjointed. The performances combined with some of the more arresting shots create an unsettling atmosphere not easily shaken once the film is over. It won’t be for everyone—it’s certainly a more outlandish take on family memory—but The Five Devils is gripping and deserving of the exposure it’s getting.