As her queer love story-cum-family drama hits UK cinemas, director Léa Mysius talks about the lack of diversity in the French film industry and the power of smell to trigger memories
It started with a whiff: that’s what Léa Mysius says of her new film, The Five Devils, which took her high into to the French Alps just as Covid was getting a foothold across the border in Italy. “I had this image in my mind of a strange girl with a gift for smells, and a past that she doesn’t know is weighing on her,” says the director. “And the way in which she lifts this weight is by discovering what happened in this past.”
Around this image, Mysius weaves the supernatural story of Vicky (first-timer Sally Dramé), a lonely eight-year-old girl who is bullied at school and clings fiercely to her mum, Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos). When a mysterious aunt (Swala Emati, also making her debut) turns up one day at home, cracks are exposed in Joanne’s marriage to Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue), a fireman born in Senegal. Determined to find out why everyone is acting so weirdly around this new arrival, Vicky creates scent jars to induce visions of her family’s troubled past – and the more she sees, the scarier it gets.
“I liked the idea that [Vicky’s powers] created a sort of playfulness where I could juggle these timeframes,” says Mysius. “It gave me different layers of time I could play with, without needing to use flashbacks.” The sense of smell’s connection to memory has been a literary motif since Proust’s famous ‘madeleine’ – a mouthful of cake that sparked memories of early childhood in his epic novel In Search of Lost Time – but it’s also the subject of extensive scientific research, says the director: “The part of the brain that processes memories is very close to the place that processes smells, and there are very porous barriers between the two. So they are very much linked. And that’s why I also feel like smell overtakes vision as a sense to trigger memories. And where it takes a fantastical turn is that the memories aren’t hers. They’re basically the ones of her mum and her aunt.”
Mysius made an auspicious feature debut in 2017 with Ava, a visually striking drama about a young teenage girl losing her eyesight who embarks on a robbery spree with her older paramour. Her new film, which she says shares “a kind of primitive quality” with her first, was due to start shooting in the early months of 2020, but was pulled before a scene had been shot when cast and crew members started getting ill on set. “We weren’t even sure what Covid was at the time,” says Mysius. “Everyone was ill and coughing. And I thought either they’re going to lock down or else everyone gets ill. It became clear we couldn’t carry on working in these conditions.”
When production resumed in spring 2021, Mysius and her screenwriting partner – cinematographer Paul Guilhaume – had drastically revised the script, simplifying Julia’s character among other changes. To preserve a sense of mystery, Mysius took cues from David Lynch, who, she learned, “writes [his screenplays] with a lot of explanatory information, which he then removes during the editing process. I liked that idea of trying to remove the building blocks of the process without the final edifice [collapsing] to keep this sense of mystery.”
Lockdown was not the only obstacle coming between Mysius and her vision; casting, too, proved difficult. As Vicky’s mum Joanne, Adèle Exarchopoulos follows her classy turn in last year’s Zero Fucks Given with another performance of quiet charisma. But she is surrounded in large part by a cast of non-professionals, including Dramé, a bewitching screen presence whose saucer-like eyes lend her just the right dose of intensity, and Emati, a professional singer. “I enjoy working with non-professional actors, but it’s hard finding an eight-year-old professional by default,” says Mysius.” And for Julia, it’s quite hard to find Black French actresses in France; they’re not just not that visible in the industry.” It’s a shocking reflection of where the French film industry is, which Mysius ascribes to a “lack of access” and a kind of negative feedback loop in which aspiring Black actors feel frozen out by a lack of diversity they see on screen. Oddly, when race has been brought up as a subject in interviews, the number one question on people’s lips has been how ‘surprising’ it was to see a mixed-race family on screen.
Happily, there are other, deeper mysteries to ponder in the film. There’s a circularity to the storytelling in The Five Devils that muddies the line between cause and effect, suggesting that, as much as we humans are but poor clay to be moulded by time and circumstance, we might also be drawn as if by premonition towards our fate. Vicky’s story, in particular, has an Ouroboros quality that calls her very presence into doubt – an “existentialist question” that Mysius politely declines to elaborate on.
It’s also a film that brushes up against many different genres and tones, without ever quite settling on one. If I had to describe it – and, reader, I do – I’d call it a queer love story-cum-family drama with elements of time travel and witchcraft. It also has an icy shard of Alpine gothic running through it that recalls French TV classic The Returned, though Mysius says she had mostly American influences in mind when hatching her story – things like The Shining or Twin Peaks, “Where you have this kind of grandiose landscape that surrounds the characters”. The main thing, says the director, is that these influences are remade into something new: “It’s like the principle in chemistry where nothing is created, everything is transformed; that’s what I want viewers to take home from [my film]. I want it to create new images in them.”
The Five Devils is out in UK cinemas now.