Vicky (Sally Dramé), the creepy kid at the center of The Five Devils, has a strange power: her sense of smell is so strong, she can track her mother, Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos), from dozens of yards away with her eyes closed; can detect the scent of chlorinated swimming-pool water and spilled coffee in the pages of an old journal. Smell is perhaps the most opaque of the five human senses; the one that’s hardest to put into words. No wonder it’s key to the uncanny intrigues of the film, part queer love story, part supernatural psychodrama, by the French director Léa Mysius.
Vicky literally sniffs out trouble with the arrival of her enigmatic aunt, Julia (Swala Emati) — the sister of her father, Jimmy (Moustapaha Mbengue), and the local pariah. Joanne seems particularly affected; she implores Jimmy to send Julia away. A decade prior, around the time Vicky was born, Julia was exiled after an episode of pyromania. Her actions left Joanne’s friend, Nadine (Daphné Patakia), permanently disfigured.
As the sexual tension between Joanne and Julia become increasingly apparent, Vicky’s abilities take on a new dimension. Julia’s scent causes Vicky to experience visions of the past, and in woozy flashbacks, we see the origins of her family history alongside her: the unspoken racism and homophobia that swirls around Julia, a skilled gymnast who seems to be blamed for Joanne’s sexual orientation.
At the same time Vicky, who is multiracial, is aggressively bullied by her provincial peers. Like her aunt, she’s a modern-day witch, even spending her free time concocting perfumes out of dead crows.
The film cleverly relies on color, physicality and elemental symbolism to express these tensions: the repressed Joanne swims daily in freezing waters; the untouchable Julia lights things aflame. The story’s various interpersonal frictions are rarely detailed in the dialogue — a distance that resonates with Vicky’s peculiar coming-of-age. She doesn’t know what the adults are going through, but she intuits how they feel.