Review: ‘The Five Devils,’ starring Adèle Exarchopoulos

May 1, 2023

by Carla Hay

Sally Dramé, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Moustapha Mbengue in “The Five Devils” (Photo courtesy of MUBI)

“The Five Devils”

Directed by Léa Mysius

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Grenoble, France, the sci-fi drama film “The Five Devils” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A swimming instructor, who used to be a gymnast, has her life upended when her 8-year-old daughter finds out family secrets after a troubled relative comes to visit.

Culture Audience: “The Five Devils” will appeal primarily to people who like watching artsy and offbeat European films that have elements of science fiction.

Swala Emati and Adèle Exarchopoulos in “The Five Devils” (Photo courtesy of MUBI)

“The Five Devils” is a science-fiction mindbender that presents its story as pieces of a puzzle that eventually emerge to reveal the whole picture of a family that has been plagued by secrets and scandals that they don’t want to discuss. This time-travel drama is intriguing but a little repetitive and predictable. The cast members give interesting performances that strengthen the uneven script. Some viewers will be offended by how the movie glorifies a selfish and unfaithful character. However, there’s enough in the story to hold the interest of viewers who are curious to see what is revealed next.

Directed by Léa Mysius (who co-wrote “The Five Devils” screenplay with Paul Guilhaume), “The Five Devils” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. The movie is set in Grenoble, France. Like a lot of time-traveling movies, “The Five Devils” has a plot that makes people think about how life experiences could be shaped by choices versus fate.

“The Devils” begins by showing a group of horrified women in their 20s, who are dressed in sparkly leotards and standing in front of a burning building. The women are screaming in fear and horror. Most of the women have their backs to the camera, but one of these young women can clearly be seen. And she looks like she’s in complete shock.

Her name is Joanne (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos), and viewers find out that this fire happened about 10 years before, when she was part of a group of gymnastic dancers called the Five Devils. The movie circles back to this scene later in “The Five Devils,” in order to explain the circumstances under which this fire happened. Without giving away spoiler information, it’s enough to say that this fire had a profound impact on many people’s lives.

In the approximately 10 years since that fire happened, Joanne has gotten married to (ironically) a firefighter named Jimmy Soler (played by Moustapha Mbengue), who is an immigrant from Senegal. Joanne, who quit being a gymnast ever since the fire, now works as a swimming exercise instructor at a community center, where most of her students are middle-aged and elderly women.

Jimmy and Joanne have one child together: a precocious 8-year-old daughter named Vicky (played by Sally Dramé, making an impressive feature-film debut), who sometimes helps Joanne do breath-holding practices at a nearby lake. In these practice sessions, Vicky is supposed to time Joanne on how long Joanne can stay underwater. Vicky is very perceptive and has more than above-average intelligence. Vicky also has the ability to travel in the past.

Vicky doesn’t find out that she has this time-traveling ability until after her family gets a surprise visit from Jimmy’s younger sister Julia (played by Swala Emati), who works in nano-biotechnology. Julia’s presence seems to immediately disturb Joanne. Jimmy is happy to see Julia, but Joanne is standoffish and abrupt to Julia. Privately, Joanne comments to Jimmy about Julia:” I want her to leave. I can’t stand it.”

Julia meets Vicky for the first time during this visit. Vicky has an acute sense of smell, and she tells Julia that Julia smells like peat whiskey. There are other signs that Julia abuses alcohol. When Julia arrives for the visit, her left eye is bruised. Julia says she got the bruise because she accidentally fell down while drunk. It later emerges that Julia has other issues that have to do with her mental health. She has spent a certain number of years in a certain facility. The details are eventually revealed in the movie.

Vicky is a loner who likes to collect insects. Joanne knows that Vicky has an unusually strong sense of smell, but Joanne doesn’t want to tell Jimmy about it because she thinks Jimmy will want to put Vicky in therapy. Joanne doesn’t think that Vicky needs therapy. Joanne wants to be a mother who can handle everything herself.

At school, some of the students bully Vicky for having big, natural hair. These school bullies (there are about five to seven of them) taunt and attack Vicky. Because of the way Vicky’s hair looks, the school bullies call her Toilet Brush or Butt Brush. If Vicky fights back in self-defense, the bullies try to put the blame on her.

During a disturbing incident at school, the bullies surround Vicky and force soap into her mouth. But then something bizarre happens during the attack: All the kids pass out at the same time, including Vicky. School officials and parents find out, and people try to blame Vicky. However, Joanne adamantly defends Vicky and says that the kids who were bullying Vicky are to blame and should be the one to make an apology. That apology never happens, and people never find out why all of the children lost consciousness at the same time.

Meanwhile, Vicky has other episodes of passing out randomly. And every time she passes out, she goes back in the past and sees parts of Joanne’s life. In the present day, Vicky has made a liquid concoction in a jar that includes some of her own urine. (Yes, this movie is weird like that.) Vicky puts the concoction underneath the bed where Julia is sleeping.

Vicky finds out that every time she inhales this concoction, she can control when she goes into her mother Joanne’s past. Vicky is invisible to people she sees in the past, except for one person who apparently has the same psychic abilities as Vicky does. The rest of “The Five Devils” shows how Vicky finds out some family secrets that the adults in her family don’t want her to know.

The secrets involve betrayals, infidelity and lies to cover up people’s true identities. One character in particular is the catalyst for most of the chaos because this person does the most deceiving and hurting of other people. However, the movie goes out of its way to try to make this character look sympathetic, when that sympathy is not deserved in most cases. This narcissistic person, who likes to play the victim when causing problems, doesn’t like to take much responsibility for causing so much emotional damage.

Some of the movie’s supporting characters have varying degrees of knowledge or ignorance about these family secrets. Joanne’s widowed father (played Patrick Bouchitey), who doesn’t have a name in the movie, suspects one of these secrets, but he doesn’t want to really know the truth. Jimmy has a co-worker friend name Jeff (played by Hugo Dillon), who warns Jimmy that Julia’s presence is upsetting to some people in the community. Joanne has a co-worker friend named Nadine (played by Daphne Patakia), who used to be in the same gymnastics group and whose face was disfigured in the fire. Nadine has a secret that is related to the Soler family’s big secrets.

All of the cast members play their parts well, but the movie would not be as fascinating without the riveting performance of Dramé as Vicky. It is through Vicky’s eyes that viewers discover all the family secrets. Dramé is able to convey with great skill the myriad of emotions that Vicky feels, including the hurt and confusion when she finds out that a big part of the family’s life turned out to be a lie that was actively covered up by the adult in the family who causes the most emotional chaos. Vicky also finds out something that makes her question if she would have been born in the first place if certain people had made different decisions.

Vicky’s loss of childhood innocence has more emotional weight than the soap opera-ish melodrama caused by the adults in the story. “The Five Devils” loses its way a little when it leans too heavily into an over-the-top “life or death” situation toward the end of the film. And the person who was hurt by infidelity doesn’t give the type of reaction that some viewers might expect. “The Five Devils” tries to show how life can be messy, but the ending of the movie succumbs to a conventional formula that tries to ignore the big mess caused by the most toxic person in the family.

MUBI released “The Five Devils” on March 24 in New York City, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on March 31, 2023.

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