Wednesday 29 March 2023

Wild at heart: "The Five Devils"

It could be that French writer-director Léa Mysius
 is two-thirds of the way through a trilogy on the theme of the senses. Mysius's 2017 debut Ava, a coming-of-ager that collapsed under the weight of more ideas than one film could coherently handle, centred on a teenager losing her sight. Follow-up The Five Devils takes as its young heroine a girl equally blessed and cursed with a supernaturally heightened sense of smell. It opens in social realist territory: the title is the name of a sports centre in Grenoble, at the very foot of the Alps, where gymnast and beauty queen turned swim instructor Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos) works, sometimes with her pre-teen daughter Vicky (Sally Dramé) in tow. From the attention paid early on to the wedding photo fixed at Joanne's workstation, we intuit her marriage to local fireman Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue) is in some kind of trouble, a situation hardly improved when, against Joanne's wishes, Jimmy installs his dipsomaniac sister Julia (Swala Emati) in the couple's spare room. Soon, everyone's coming to terms with a bigger problem yet. You know how certain smells are said to take you back, like Proustian madeleines for the nostrils? In Vicky's case, that nostalgia is made literal: the odd potent whiff slingshots her into a moment where all the grown-ups in her life were still working out who they were going to be. I'm reluctant to tag a work this pointedly eccentric with anything so conventional (or reductive) as "it's X meets Y" formula, but the film that results may be best approached as Back to the Future with scent-fostering Mason jars instead of a DeLorean, the kind of creative gamble that could only have been greenlit in a country where sniffing wine inspires the same concentration as chugging it.

In essence, it's a neat literary conceit: hypersensitive child intuits something's amiss between her parents, ventures back into their history to see where they went wrong, and comes to intervene in ways both helpful and unhelpful. Yet it's never filmed so neatly as that. If Ava was tiddly on its own ideas, The Five Devils is openly drunk on them. Two films into this career, it's become clear that Mysius is drawn to wildness. That's why the new movie makes a fetish-song out of Bonnie Tyler's ever-elemental "Total Eclipse of the Heart" ("Bohemian Rhapsody" for girls); why a confrontation between Joanne and Julia ends with an octopus being beaten to death over a kitchen unit; and why the headmistress of Vicky's school can't be more than 3'1" in heels. (Dwarves, mountains, a half-blind character called Nadine: I'm guessing there's an element of Twin Peaks in the mix, and that's before some of this town's secrets are exposed by cleansing fire.) Elsewhere, Mysius appears to be amusing herself playing thematic games with extremes of warmth and cold, reds and blues, age and stature. Even with their hair tugged tightly back, the grown-up actors don't much resemble teenagers in the flashbacks, but the idea made me wonder if Dennis Potter's Blue Remembered Hills ever got as far as Grenoble, and - much like David Bennent in The Tin Drum and Aleksei Kravchenko in Come and See - Dramé is one of those rare child stars who looks considerably older and wiser than their tender years. (Listen to how she consoles Jimmy in the closing moments: "petit papa".) It doesn't all coalesce or straighten out. A cue of sorts has been taken from Dramé's explosively natural hair and the incorrigible queerness written into those flashbacks; the impression I took away was of a film tottering a wobbly path towards an unexpectedly harmonious ending. Yet if you were looking for a counterpoint to the tidiness of Céline Sciamma's Petite Maman, The Five Devils would serve you well: there's plenty here to suggest Mysius may just be the wayward Lana del Rey to Sciamma's hallowed Taylor Swift.

The Five Devils is now playing in selected cinemas.

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