Witchcraft is both the cause of and solution to a decade-old tragedy in The Five Devils, a compelling small town mystery-drama with sci-fi and horror elements from director Léa Mysius (Ava) that comes to this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival after debuting at Cannes in May.
Bolstered by two captivating lead performances from Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Colour) and young Sally Dramé, The Five Devils presents an intriguing puzzle-box mystery even if it writes itself into a corner but the finale, with audiences are a step or two ahead of the narrative.
Exarchopoulos stars as Joanne, a swim instructor and mother of 10-year-old Vicky (Dramé) trapped in a loveless marriage to firefighter Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue). Set and shot in a small town below the French Alps, the chilly mountainous backdrops captured throughout help emphasize the feeling of being trapped in time and place.
Much of The Five Devils is told through the eyes of Vicky, who is also trapped: a mixed-race child relentlessly teased by her peers for her big hair, she retreats into her own world. Vicky has an unusual sense of smell and brews strange potions in the family’s backyard that seem to have a transportive effect.
Into the family’s life comes the mysterious Julia (Swala Emati), Jimmy’s estranged sister. Julia seems to have an unresolved backstory not with her brother, but Joanne – as well as Joanne’s friend and colleague (played by Noée Abita), who bears a heavy burn scar across half of her face.
How The Five Devils ties Vicky’s present-day storyline into her parents’ backstory is ingenious, and director Mysius (who co-wrote the film with Paul Guilhaume) successfully teases out the mystery throughout the storyline, dropping hints at all the right intervals to maintain our interest.
But once we have all the information needed to piece things together, The Five Devils has painted itself into an unfortunate corner: we know almost exactly how things will occur, and spend portions of the climax watching events that we’ve already put together in our minds, with little surprise.
Given the sci-fi and time travel elements the film effortlessly mixes into the preceding two acts, one might expect a little invention by the finale; instead, we’re left with a perfunctory conclusion that feels like a letdown. And while Vicky’s actions during the climactic events nicely tie together her character’s arc, Joanne’s final choices don’t work as nicely.
Despite the climatic missteps, however, The Five Devil’s is a undeniably well-crafted by director Mysius and features two performance that genuinely light up the screen; Exarchopoulos is a known talent following her breakthrough work in Blue is the Warmest Colour, but young Dramé matches her every bit of the way.
While The Five Devils may not be a runaway success, it breathlessly integrates science fiction elements into a deeply personal storyline to create one of the more memorable films on this year’s festival circuit.