So often in Western culture, there exists a palpable ambient fear of “confusing children.” Conservatives fret that if we expose them to too much—like, say, queerness and other ways of life that deviate from cis heteronormative patriarchal ideals—we do them a disservice by scrambling their little minds. This is, I think, moral panic. Confusion is part of learning, mere exposure to alternative possibilities can clear up a lot, and curiosity is a good thing for the world. Kids have more intellectual agency than the right gives them credit for or, probably more accurately, wants them to have (see: the renewed fervor for book-banning).
The prepubescent Vicky (Sally Dramé), protagonist of director Léa Mysius’ French film The Five Devils (Les Cinq Diables), is one such independent thinker with an insatiable appetite for existential enlightenment. (The film played Cannes last year, where it received a five-minute standing ovation, and lands in U.S. theaters on Friday.) Vicky is in some ways a prototypical cinematic weird kid—a gifted outsider who’s bullied by her peers—and in others like no weird kid type we’ve ever seen before. Her gift is an impeccable sense of smell, so cultivated at such a young age that she can determine whether a rat or squirrel breathed on a pinecone she finds on the ground near the village in which she lives that sits at the foot of the French Alps. Her mother, Joanne (Blue Is the Warmest Color’s Adèle Exarchopoulos), is freaked out by her daughter’s gift: “Her sense of smell…it’s weird,” Joanne tells her father early in the movie. She has no idea.
Vicky keeps jars of peculiar scented mementos; she has, for example, multiple containing the unused milking grease that she wipes from her hands after slathering her mother with it (for protection from the cold and chafing) before her winter swims in a nearby lake. Vicky’s witchiness starts to look more like actual witchcraft after she swipes an unmarked bottle in the bag of her visiting aunt Julia (Swala Emati), concocts a potion, takes a whiff, and passes out. She wakes up about 10 years in the past, watching her mother and Julia practice high school gymnastics. Further smell journeys take her back to key moments in her pre-history.
The Five Devils—which contains no real devils and is, curiously, named after the rec center where Joanne teaches seniors water aerobics—is built on two intertwining mysteries. The first is why Joanne is so hostile to Julia; the other is more elemental on Vicky’s part—she wants to know what made her her. She is wise beyond her years, as she understands that life as she would come to know it did not begin with her birth. It was the result of several events and decisions made by her mother, her aunt, and her Senegalese immigrant father Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue). We learn alongside Vicky that her her mom and aunt, Joanne and Julia, were once a couple, but mental illness and arson led to their demise. After that, Joanne eventually took up with Jimmy, whom she seems utterly bored by (her eyes gloss over when they spend time as a family) and doesn’t have sex with. Julia’s supposed mental illness was, at least in part, related to her ability to see the time traveling Vicky when no one else can. Vicky’s presence in a past before she existed consequently is what facilitates her eventual birth, though she isn’t so much meddling as taking part in an already closed loop. This aspect of the movie has been in other reviews compared to Back to the Future, and it’s reminiscent of that if Marty McFly were a mostly passive, mostly invisible observer.
The domestic aspects of The Five Devils are at times pure melodrama. “Are you upset I went berserk?” Julia asks Joanne, only to have the latter counter with: “Are you upset I had a child with your brother?” Joanne’s friend Nadine (Benedetta’s Daphné Patakia) violently lashes out when she learns that Joanne is hosting Julia, whose arson permanently disfigured Nadine. “You stole my life from me!” she screams during her fury, in reference to her past relationship with Jimmy. And yet the banality of the interpersonal stuff grounds the more fantastical elements of The Five Devils. Without the soapy intrigue, the more heady elements might take over to the point of abstraction or Jess Franco levels of incoherence. The bigotry that the characters face—Joanne’s father is a homophobe whose prejudice complicated her relationship with Julia, and the afro-rocking, mixed-race Vicky is taunted by her white classmates who call her “Butt Brush” and “Toilet Brush”—also fluffs up the realism.
The performances, too, do a lot to make this thing work as well as it does—particularly that of Dramé, who is matter of fact about her gifts and doesn’t attempt to amp up the preciousness for the sake of being cute. Like her character, Dramé seems fully aware of her impressive capabilities. The cinematography, which includes at times hyper-saturated colors (the lake in which Joanne swims is the color of blue raspberry Kool-Aid), helps weave The Five Devils’ spell. This is a refreshing, consistently surprising spin on the mostly dormant domestic thriller subgenre—Julia’s presence at first seems to threaten a family unit, but through Vicky’s detective work and Mysius’ alluring storytelling, we learn that the unit wasn’t actually stable to begin with and needed some shaking up. The final scenes, which find the characters at peace via a sort of fissure, are anything but conventional. They turn the movie’s melodrama, and its larger subgenre, on its head, much to the benefit of all.