The French director speaks to Nick Chen about her new time-travelling fantasy thriller, which follows a fiery queer love triangle
The Five Devils is a queer, colourful, fantastical thriller about making sense of making scents. Vicky (Sally Dramé), a bullied schoolgirl, possesses a magical nose: in the forest, she can smell the presence of her mother, Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos), even when the parent is buried beneath leaves. When Vicky’s father, Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue), is visited by his sister, Julia (Swala Emati), Vicky can thus smell that something’s a little off. Not just through the mischievous manner Joanne and Julia caress each other beneath the table, but the literal smell. Through sense memory, Vicky is able to travel back in time to witness her parents in their youth, like Back to the Future with a fiery, bisexual love triangle.
The audacious French feature marks the second time as a director for Léa Mysius, a 33-year-old who, in recent years, has carved out a reputation as a go-to screenwriter for established auteurs: her credits include Claire Denis’s Stars at Noon, Jacques Audiard’s Paris, 13th District, and Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghost. For her own projects, though, Mysius has been exploring the senses. 2017’s Ava depicted a 13-year-old girl who discovers new ways to navigate the world upon losing her eyesight. With The Five Devils, it could be the first film to convey positive odours on a movie screen without scratch-and-sniff cards.
“I like to target very carnal and sensual elements in my filmmaking,” explains Mysius in a pleasant-smelling London hotel in March, sat across a table, via an interpreter. “So naturally I went from eyesight to scent.” Has she ever used her nose in a dream? “Generally speaking, I have an interest in smelling things around me, and when I was working on the film, I started to incrementally develop this sense of smell. When dreaming, I wouldn’t smell a particular scent, but I would dream that I was smelling it. So when working on the film, if I was thinking of petrol, I would smell it instead of thinking of the images. It’s a very strange feeling.”
Mysius cowrote The Five Devils with Paul Guilhaume, her partner and also the film’s cinematographer. Shot on 35mm, the kaleidoscopic fairy-tale frequently juxtaposes the landscapes’ various textures, whether it’s the dark blues of a nearby lake or the eventual pyromania that sets the frame aflame. “If you film a forest or beach with 35mm, the audience can sense it,” Mysius says. “Film is light making an imprint on matter, whereas digital is coding and abstract. I wanted something born out of light, of matter, of earth; film deepens the colours and creates something more visual. The specific scenery I chose was both very beautiful and claustrophobic.”
Vicky’s magical powers don’t emerge from being bitten on the nose by a radioactive spider. Rather, she’s an intensely lonely child, often battling bullies at school who utter racist insults; witnessing the cracks in her parents’ marriage, she inevitably wonders if her birth prevented her mother from seeking an over-the-table romance with Julia. Instead of jotting down angsty poetry into a LiveJournal, though, Vicky experiments with mashed-up ingredients in jars to capture distinct smells.
“It’s a common theme in literature: this ugly duckling gets picked on, and, as a result, develops this superpower. But even in real life, if you’re rejected or bullied, there’s something you have that’s different – and it’s to be cherished. The difficulty lies in having this difference that enriches you, and then suffering that weight amongst society.” While it’s mostly left unspoken, the film follows a multiracial family and a bisexual romance. “The reality is that there are mixed-race couples and homosexual couples, but also a real racist and homophobic reality in France. I’m torn between representing the France I would like to see in its diversity, but not negating the real presence of prejudice. The village residents embody this atmosphere of resentment without being completely explicit.”
Despite referencing superheroes, Mysius describes her writing process as more novelistic, like Jonathan Frantzen: scrapped storylines involved extended relatives, such as the younger version of Joanne discussing her sexuality with her parents. “Ava was a chronological narrative focused on one character,” notes Mysius. “This time, it’s a gallery of characters. I was reading a lot of Frantzen, whose ideas of traditional nuclear families I drew upon: his characters want to break out of that stifling environment of two parents and two kids living in a small detached house.
“Also, in Freedom, Patty goes back in time, and has a choice of two men at one point in her past. I liked the idea that if she chooses one, it triggers a whole chain of events… But I should stress: I wanted to depict a French sociopolitical reality, and not throw in ideas from across the pond that are artificially imposed.”
As for revisiting one’s past, time-travel movies have often concocted scenarios in which adults mingle with younger versions of their parents. A personal favourite is Camille Rewinds, a nonsensical French comedy in which Noémie Lvovsky returns to 1985 via a faulty watch and plays her bratty teenage self as an adult. Similarly, when Vicky traverses into someone else’s memory and can somehow interact with the people around her, it doesn’t matter that CinemaSins could do a two-hour YouTube video on the breakdown of logic.
So instead of trying to recreate Primer with diagrams, Mysius was more concerned with the psychological aspects of time travel. During the writing process, she read Pascal Quignard’s The Sexual Night (“sexual mumbo-jumbo” according to the New York Times), in which the French philosopher describes the shared mental landscape that every child inhabits before they’re born. “He depicts it as primitive chaos and full of fire,” says Mysius. “It’s essentially when their parents conceive them. I took that idea into the film.”
Thus a subplot involving pyromania within The Five Devils isn’t purely to demonstrate the majesty of 35mm cinematography, but to subconsciously transport the viewer back to their conception. If you buy into Quignard’s sexual mumbo-jumbo, that is. “Not everyone dreams of fire from the time they were born,” says Mysius. “But I like the idea that the film triggers images in the audience’s mind that aren’t necessarily mine.”
After all, in The Five Devils, everyone senses – or at least smells – the world uniquely, and Mysius suggests that each viewer could possess Vicky’s superpower with a bit more attentiveness to their surroundings. “Our bodies hold the weight of memories that aren’t necessarily ours,” she explains. “Vicky grasps this memory that she isn’t fully aware of, and goes on to explore it. Memories are born out of things around us: what’s unsaid; family; tradition; the village we live in. We hold these memories within ourselves that we’re not fully conscious of – and dreams allow us to access them.”
The Five Devils is out in UK and Irish cinemas on March 24