The Five Devils, Léa Mysius

Director Léa Mysius on ‘The Five Devils’ Aromatic Mystery

Director Léa Mysius talks with PopMatters about her sophomore feature The Five Devils, a nuanced exploration of the primitive senses.

The Five Devils
Léa Mysius
16 March 2023 (BFI Flare)

Director Léa Mysius cuts a thoughtful figure – her gaze seems to swallow you whole as you approach her. You could be forgiven for feeling intimidated, but her affable nature puts you at ease. Beneath her strong, quiet presence, she reveals a confident awareness of politics, art, and culture.

Mysius is in London to present The Five Devils (Les cinq diables) at the 2023 BFI Flare Film Festival. In the relative quiet of Covent Garden, away from the hustle and bustle of the festival on the Southbank, we meet to discuss her inventive queer love story, which uses a girl’s unique sensory gift to time travel through memories that are not her own.

The story centres on eight-year-old Vicky (Sally Dramé), nicknamed “Bog brush” by the school bullies because of her Afro-hair. A loner, she shares a loving bond with her mother, Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos). Able to reproduce any scent, which she collects in carefully labelled jars, she reproduces her mother’s. When her father’s sister Julia (Swala Emati) unexpectedly re-enters their lives, Vicky reproduces her scent and is transported into memories that uncover a chaotic past with hidden secrets.

The Five Devils, co-written with the film’s cinematographer, Paul Guilhaume, is Mysius’ sophomore feature. She has collaborated as a screenwriter with French directors, Claire DenisJacques Audiard, and Arnaud Desplechin. 

I begin by probing the origins of her creative journey. “It’s a question that I’m grappling with now, as I’m writing my third feature,” she tells me. “It didn’t use to plague me when I first started writing when I first wrote Ava [released in 2017] – I just threw myself into it. I had this idea, and I thought, ‘I’ll have a lot of other ideas in the future.’ But when you start making films, something changes – you suddenly have an audience, then you start having to take into account how it will be received.”  Mysius admits that you shouldn’t write to please the audience, but she says that the weight of expectation becomes paralysing, and it’s like having someone looking over your shoulder.

The beginning of our conversation opens a door that reveals the insecurities that lurk in the closet of the writer’s mind. It’s not unique for Mysius to feel this weight of expectation. Speaking with English director Terence Davies about 2016’s A Quiet Passion, his biopic of American poet Emily Dickinson, he said, “She obviously needed to express herself deeply in poetry like everyone else who works in any kind of art form. You want a response, you need a response, and if there is no response, or the response is indifferent, where do you find the courage to go on?”

Mysius believes her awareness of audience expectation, which has not changed for the better, has been escalated by an ambiguity created by technological innovations. “Initially, you would at least know who you were writing for, roughly who your audience is, but now with the development of streaming platforms, there’s the saturation of content, and you’re not sure who you’re writing for anymore. Anybody could be watching, and that’s even more stifling.” She adds, “There’s also the idea that you’re so saturated with images that have become slightly sickening, you’re thinking, ‘What can I add that’s not there already?’ It has to come from you and be something intimate, something that you think will add to the existing content that’s already out there.” 

Ava and The Five Devils present Mysius as a director of the senses – from the young female protagonist Ava losing her sight to Vicky’s transportation into memories that are not her own through her extraordinary sense of smell. The intimacy Mysius speaks about in The Five Devils is to be found in her personal experience.

“When I was a child, I loved creating these potions in little pots, mostly stuff my twin sister and I picked from the garden,” she remembers. “The sense of smell I’m interested in doesn’t have very good press. People didn’t attach much importance to it until Covid hit, and because people suddenly started to lose their sense of smell, it became more important to them – they became aware of it.” She adds, “I didn’t want [The Five Devils] to be an industrial exploration of smell, like perfume or such. I wanted it to be a more primitive idea of the sense of smell – the way smell triggers these images in Vicky that aren’t hers, but her mother’s. […] From one to another, her sense of smell extrapolates abstract images in the memories of her mother, and these images create another layer of images that reveal the subconscious things in Joanne’s mind.” 

This idea has roots in what’s famously known as the “madeleine moment”, or the “Proust effect”, where the senses evoke past memories or emotions. Reflecting on this idea, Mysius believes that by having Vicky experience her mother’s nostalgic memories instead of her own, The Five Devils enters a fantastical space. 

If the film enters such a space, it remains grounded as a rumination on human sensitivity. You experience it when sitting in the cinema watching a film and a character acts a certain way that reminds you of a personal memory. Art evokes emotional stimuli. 

“I wanted to touch on that sensitivity is people, the audience, starting with this image of fire,” she says. “It’s quite striking and leaves an imprint on the spectator in the same way that light leaves an imprint on film – that’s the whole process of cinema.” She adds, “I wanted the audience to feel triggered by all these images and senses, and when they leave [The Five Devils] it continues to move something universal in them. So, I was touched when someone came up to me and said, ‘It made me cry, but I can’t quite explain why.’ I like the idea that The Five Devils moved something in them. That’s both unique and universal – that’s the magic of cinema.”

An ”emotional puzzle” might not be the correct phrase to describe The Five Devils, but it’s emotionally intriguing. Joanne defies our expectations as a mother. She’s cold, harsh, and angry, yet in other ways, she’s deeply compassionate. She resembles both a mother and a woman void of maternal instincts. The Five Devils is populated with these contradictions, preferring to represent its characters in a series of shades. Mysius captures this richness of character that – alongside the ideas of sensory sensitivity – leaves viewers to unpack how they feel about the characters and create their narrative understanding.

“I wanted to keep the audience guessing regarding the characters, so their opinions shift throughout the film,” she reveals. “If you see the story through Vicky’s eyes, you might think Joanne’s very cold and she’s not siding with her, but then you find out more about Joanne and start to understand that she loves her daughter. You might think Joanne’s father is a sympathetic and fun figure, but he turns out to be quite the homophobe.

“I did this [shifting character nuance] because I want to keep the audience critically engaged because the danger – when you have a single rigid critical opinion – is that’s how prejudice begins.” She adds, “It’s important to realise that there are many layers to racism and homophobia, and you have to keep critically engaging with those layers to understand them. That’s the political angle of The FIve Devils that I wanted to show.”

Mysius humorously admits, “I’m not politically militating for anything because I’m not very good at it [laughs].” She says, “I do sometimes go out in the street on demos, and I vote, but I increasingly feel where my political place lies is in cinema. I believe that art is political.”

She acknowledges that there’s a non-political entertainment side of cinema, but she believes it has an agency to create positive change through representation. “Having an Asian woman [Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All At Once] win an Oscar, it gets the press talking, it gets people talking, and it highlights racism against Asian people, for example. If young people are watching films that star people from other demographics other than white men, then it suddenly gives them a sense of representation, it gets the dialogue going. This is where the political angle of cinema is, and as filmmakers, that’s our responsibility.”

Mysius stresses the importance of this responsibility, specifically how filmmakers can empower individuals to feel like they have their place in the world instead of diminishing another person’s sense of belonging. “There’s also the emancipation one feels through fiction. It ultimately works both ways,” she says. “We live in a capitalist existence, so once the dominating class sees the dominated class bring in money, the dominated start to gain a foothold. Ideally, you’d get to a place where you break that system, and the dominated class takes the creative tools and starts making their own work.”

The Five Devils played at the Glasgow Film Festival and BFI Flare in March 2023, followed by a theatrical release from Mubi in the UK and Ireland on 24 March 2023, and then streaming exclusively on Mubi from 12 May 2023.