One of the major reasons I love film festivals is that they transform otherwise low-profile, niche-interest oddities into the hottest tickets in town. I always find it a little silly when festival crowds fight for a seat to see a wide-release studio film just a few weeks before it’ll play at every suburban multiplex anyway, but I’m charmed when that enthusiasm trickles down the program to smaller titles that will otherwise play to empty arthouse auditoriums before dying a slow death on streaming. I was sharply aware of that phenomenon when lining up to see the weirdo fantasy drama The Five Devils at this year’s Overlook Film Fest the same day that it was premiering at The Broad Theater just a few blocks away from my house. The Five Devils is the exact kind of low-budget, high-ambition art film that I’m used to watching alone at The Broad (or even at the same downtown location of The Prytania where most of Overlook is staged), so it was heartwarming to queue up with a swarm of like-minded, enthusiastic freaks psyched to be bewildered by it in unison. It shouldn’t be surprising that a local genre festival could draw a sizable crowd to see a title that’s already screening outside its downtown shopping mall locale, considering the self-selection process of an audience already receptive to what Overlook offers. Still, it was wonderful to see an odd, alienating little movie like The Five Devils get treated like a Cultural Event, when outside of festivals that kind of buzzy Thursday-night premiere is strictly reserved for superhero sequels & Tom Cruise suicide missions.
The last time I saw a French time-travel drama about a little girl who meets the younger, more troubled version of her mother through an unexplained, magical-realist device, it was in a near-empty auditorium. Petite Maman is a much more accommodating, crowd-pleasing version of that story template too, underplaying the supernatural immensity of its time-travel premise to instead focus on subtle moments of dramatic grace. In contrast, The Five Devils is Petite Maman for sickos, which is why it’s so heartwarming that Overlook was able to scrape together a full crowd of sickos to bask in its abrasive, brain-rattling glory. Calling its time traveling anti-hero a “little girl” is a little reductive. She’s more of an untrained, irresponsible witch, one who uses her supernatural sense of smell to jar up homemade potions that distill the unique essence of her few loved ones so she can mentally revisit them at will through sense memory. This lonely pastime gets out of control when she gets a hold of an elixir that allows her to astral-project into those memories, effectively time-travelling to her mother’s youth. What she discovers while traveling via these jarred scents is that she hails from a complex lineage of similarly obsessive, volatile women – most notably the younger, brasher version of her mother and her mother’s secret high school lover. From there, The Five Devils unravels to reveal an intensely fucked-up little time-travel family drama, one punctuated by wild jabs of style & emotion that you won’t find outside of buzzy festival line-ups, empty arthouse theaters and, eventually, public library DVD loans.
There are plenty of readymade reference points that might help define The Five Devils through comparison: the childhood time travel & poolside romance of Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman & Water Lilies; the ecstatic gymnastic seizures of Ana Rose Holmer’s The Fits; Divine’s supernatural sniffer in John Water’s Polyester; etc. Its wide range of vaguely familiar elements are reconfigured into such a uniquely high-style, high-drama mode of modern queer filmmaking that it can’t be cleanly categorized into any one long-running genre, though, except maybe to say that it makes for an incredibly uncomfortable Christmas film. Similarly, I can’t pinpoint exactly what’s being conjured by its provocative title, since there are no literal devils in its narrative (which would more firmly push it into the horror territory covered by most of Overlook’s programming). Are the five “devils” the five senses? It certainly made me squirm under the sense of touch as the hard sequins of a gymnastic uniform scraped against freshly burnt flesh in its barnburner finale, but most of the story is dominated by smell. Are they the four family members that crowd the small French household where the little scent-witch dwells, plus the one spurned & injured lover her parents left behind when they hooked up as teenagers? Maybe. But no one among them is evil or villainous, exactly. They all just indulge in messy, passionate human behavior, sometimes heighted by their unexplained supernatural powers. Ultimately, I don’t actually want an answer to the question. It’s just indicative of the rhetorical games of provocation & illogic that the film plays with the audience, and it’s often shocking how complex & emotional the results of those games can be.
To find the passionate cult audience it deserves, The Five Devils needs to be chopped up into easily digestible, memeable morsels the way similar crowd alienators like Midsommar, Tár, and Annette have in the recent past. There’s plenty to work with there, from the striking visuals of young newcomer Sally Dramé huffing her collection of self-labeled scents to the total emotional breakdown of indie darling Adèle Exarchopoulos drunkenly slurring “Total Eclipse of the Heart” on a karaoke stage. Hell, even I’m guilty of reducing it to something cuter & simpler than it is with my little “Petite Maman for sickos” quip. In truth, it’s a very thorny, elusive work that’s difficult to market in any effective way without spoiling & overexplaining each of its dramatic twists. That’s why it’s so great that festivals like Overlook & Cannes (where The Five Devils premiered) are able to drum up actual, real-life enthusiasm for a film this abrasively weird. I love that I regularly get to see this kind of genre-defiant anomaly at The Prytania & The Broad, but it’s often a much quieter, lonelier experience.
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