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The Five Devils Review: Supernatural Thriller Leaves A Strange Smell

  • Great lead actresses
  • Some strong moments of romantic passion
  • Too weird for its own good
  • Horror elements fall flat

In the "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" Season 5 episode "Mac and Charlie Write a Movie," a new M. Night Shyamalan production inspires Mac and Charlie to try their hands at screenwriting. Trying to develop their own version of "The Sixth Sense," they come up with "The Fifth Sense," in which Dolph Lundgren is a scientist who can smell crime before it happens. Failing to actually write a script, they instead just make a poster of Dolph Lundgren with a nose for a head and the title "Crime Stinks: The Smell of Penetration."

I do not know if writer-director Léa Mysius is a fan of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," but I bring this up because her new film "The Five Devils" very well could have been titled "The Fifth Sense" (also, "The Five Devils" could easily be an alternate title for "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"). This smell-centric French thriller resembles "The Sixth Sense" in its blend of family drama and supernatural twists, as well as in featuring exceptional child acting. It also unfortunately resembles some of Shyamalan's less successful films in its over-ambitious nature and failure to really engage as horror. There's enough here that works emotionally that I expect this extraordinarily weird movie will have passionate fans, but I'm slightly disappointed I can't count myself among them.

A time traveling puzzle box

The title "The Five Devils" seemingly refers to the five main characters tied up in the film's web of familial and romantic intrigue. Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos from "Blue is the Warmest Color") is at the center of a bisexual love triangle: She's married to Somali immigrant Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue), with whom she has a 10-year-old daughter named Vicky (Sally Dramé, incredible in her first acting role), but she finds herself longing for her husband's sister Julia (Swala Emati), recently released from prison. The fifth "devil" in this scenario, Nadine (Daphné Patakia), was in love with Jimmy years ago and remains resentful after an accident that left half her face covered in burn scars.

That would be complicated enough for a straightforward drama, but then there's also the issue that Vicky is able to time travel via the power of smell. She can identify seemingly any smell regardless of age or distance, captures specific scents in jars, and somehow is able to use people's scents to magically transport herself into those people's memories. That one person in these memories can see her and violently react to her presence proves that Vicky isn't just experiencing memories but time traveling in a way that directly impacts the past and present.

These weird fantasy elements set up the narrative as a puzzle of sorts. The mild cleverness of how the puzzle pieces fit together is blunted by the logical leaps it takes to get there and significant questions of tone. Mysius has difficulty successfully blending the grounded elements with the surreal ones, making it hard to really take them seriously. Occasionally it spills over into camp entertainment, and the romance between Joanne and Julie can at times be seriously affecting, but much of the time the story feels distant and the emotions fall flat. This flatness is especially pronounced when the film tries to be scary, which it simply fails to be, despite the musical score by Florencia Di Concilio trying so hard to operate in classic horror movie mode.

Great performances, mixed characters

That "The Five Devils" works on any level is largely due to the cast, particularly Exarchopoulos and Dramé. The mother and daughter are the film's most complex characters, and Vicky's psychologically complicated reactions to learning more about her mom make for a compelling if the still underdeveloped source of intrigue. One line inspired the whole audience at my screening to squirm in discomfort, and Dramé sells the heck out of it. Exarchopoulos keeps her performance subtle and controlled until Jeanne loses it, and she does a great job expressing small pressures and big emotional outpourings.

Mbengue and Emati also give solid performances, finding different chemistries with Exarchopoulos, but neither gets the chance to stand out in the same way, as Jimmy and Julia are both primarily reactive rather than proactive characters. The film's handling of racism and homophobia in contemporary France is well-meaning if not particularly insightful, amounting to another thematic element that's mostly just there.

That's the big issue with "The Five Devils" in a nutshell: There's a lot going on and it's generally handled at least adequately but not much really excels. The movie is at its best when it lets the actors dig into the parental and romantic relationships and at its worst when the suspension of disbelief puts all that emotion at a distance. In Shyamalan-esque fashion, there's one last twist at the very end of the film, and while I can interpret what it's going for, it's a fairly extraneous topper for a film that intrigues but never fully grabs.

"The Five Devils" is now in limited theatrical release and will be available for streaming on MUBI on May 12.