With all the sequels, ‘requels’, remakes and ‘pre-makes’ around, you’d be forgiven for thinking Hollywood is running out of ideas. European filmmakers, however, seem to be bursting with them. Whatever else you can say about a film in which a ten-year-old girl, gifted with the ability to recreate the exact scent of people in her life, discovers that she can time travel by sniffing the jar containing the olfactory essence of her father’s sister, ‘How many times have we heard that story?’ is not one of them.
The girl in question is Vicky (newcomer Sally Dramé), whose mother Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is suffocating in a souring marriage with Senegalese fireman Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue). The situation is further strained by the arrival of Jimmy’s sister Julia (Swala Emati) after some unspecified scandal, possibly involving a psychotic break, a lesbian romance, or both.
Do their secrets and lies have something to do with their former classmate Nadine (Benedetta’s Daphné Patakia), whose face and upper body bear the unmistakable scars of a fire? Vicky intends to find out – and thanks to her scent-induced superpower, she is able to venture back in time (perhaps only within her own lifetime, like Quantum Leap’s Sam Beckett) to discover the secrets of her parents’ past, as though the video camera in Aftersun was a literal time-travel device, rather than a figurative one.
Exarchopoulos’s performance is so sophisticated, the rest of the cast struggles to keep up
The Five Devils is the second film from French writer-director Léa Mysius, and it’s more assured than her (nonetheless impressive) 2017 debut, Ava – also told from a child’s perspective. Although here it feels as if someone (perhaps co-screenwriter/cinematographer Paul Guilhaume) is pulling Mysius in a more commercial direction; the film works better when it leans closer to the enigmatic sophistry of Shane Carruth’s time-travel mystery Primer than Nacho Vigalondo’s tidier Timecrimes.
For all its structural ingenuity, The Five Devils is fundamentally a love story, and a surprisingly affecting one, largely due to a captivating central performance from Exarchopoulos, who, a decade after becoming the youngest ever winner of the Palme d’Or (for Blue is the Warmest Colour), gives a performance of such nuance and sophistication, the rest of the adult cast struggles to keep up.
In UK cinemas Mar 24.