Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 29, 2023 4:42 am 
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A powerful mélange of elements doesn't quite mix in this surreal portrait of a family

The Five Devils (French: Les Cinq Diables) is a 2022 French fantasy drama film directed by Léa Mysius, who co-wrote the screenplay with partner and dp Paul Guilhaume. She has contributed to screenplays for Arnaud Desplechin, Claire Denis, and Jacques Audiard, so she's trusted in that area in high places; but for her own, she gets wilder. The film stars Adèle Exarchopoulos and Sally Dramé. as a close mother and daughter. It premiered in the Directors' Fortnight section of the Cannes Film Festival on 23 May 2022 and released in France the end of August of last year, receiving a poor AlloCiné critical rating of 3.2 (64%). It's exciting, in-your-face, original, but does not cohere.

Mysius showed an experimental interest in the senses in her first film, the 2017 Ava, which was about a wild girl going blind exploring all the possibilities before her eyesight fails. I commented that the film was "better at striking incidents and atmosphere than storyline." The Five Devils begins (after a lot of loud pop music) with Vicky Soler, played by the bright-eyed, intense Sally Dramé, a ten-year-old black girl with a big bush of frizzy hair her white schoolmates use as a pretext for racist mockery. Vicky is the central figure here. She has an extraordinary sense of smell - so strong, she can track her mother from 20 yards across a wood, blindfolded, and can tell where things have been.

It goes further than that: Vicky collects odors and can use them to go into trances, recalling past lives. She will provide extra plotlines through trance-flashbacks. This is fun, exciting, but a bit excessive. The remarkable smell or the trances would have been enough. Both, with all the drama that ensues in the foreground of the action, is excessive and confusing and though Mysius skillfully activates that foreground with more loud pop music and karaoke and a spectacular act of arson (always a visually striking way of livening things up), it's never clear what's meant to matter and where it all falls out.

Besides her preoccupations with her superpowers, Vicky is close to her white mother, Joanne Soler (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a gymnast who teaches water aerobics and likes to swim in the freezing mountain lake in this French Alps location where they live with Vicky's father and Joanne's husband Jimmy Soler (Moustapha Mbengue). He is a fireman, Senegalese, and seems older, severe, a bit remote. The warm period of the marriage was the early days oof Vicky's birth, Joanne's stated happiest time: but she declares she'll be faithful forever to the girl.

Trouble comes with the unexpected arrival of Jimmy''s younger sister Julia (Swala Emati). Vicky will unearth a past that involves intimacy between Julia and Joanne. Julia has just gotten out of prison. She is a gymnast too and participates in a Christmas show at the athletics center that is a climactic event of the story. But this spectacle isn't enough to unify the warring plotlines.

Vicky is a wonderful creation. As her troubled and confused mother Adèle Exarchopoulos is a warm and, all things considered, surprisingly appealing presence. But while the action is all intense and even momentarily touching here it leaves no clear impression other than that of having been shaken and prodded. It feels like Léa Mysius needed to curb her wildly varied talents more in writing this screenplay and making this film, as she must have done in writing for those other distinguished French directors. But she certainly puts on a show for us. I feel mean giving Les cinq diables a bum review: it has so many lively and engaging moments. But this is talent wasted.

The Five Devils/Les cinq diables, 103 mins., debuted at Cannes Directors' Fortnight 2022 and showed at man other festivals, and fantastic fests. It opened in US theaters Mar. 24, 2023. Metacritic rating 69%.

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