Cinema, as an art form, relies on two tools — sight and sound — to fool us into believing that all five of our senses are being stimulated. That makes Léa Mysius’ more-intriguing-than-successful supernatural thriller, “The Five Devils,” a very curious animal indeed, since it focuses on a young girl with an exceptionally strong sense of smell, a phenomenon its director can show but never properly reproduce.
Eight-year-old Vicky (Sally Dramé) would be right at home as one of the young mutants in an “X-Men” movie, so hypersensitive are her olfactory skills. A future perfume designer perhaps, the frizzy-haired kid spends her free time collecting odoriferous scraps from her life and environment and storing them in neatly labeled jars. When her mother, Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos), discovers Vicky’s gift during a walk in the woods, she blindfolds her daughter and tries to hide under a pile of wet leaves. Sniffing the air, Vicky manages to locate Joanne almost immediately.
But Vicky’s ability doesn’t stop there. For most people, scents can serve as triggers into specific memories: A certain fragrance reminds you of your grandmother; another aroma whisks your thoughts back to childhood. In Vicky’s case, those same odors might transport her quite literally out of her own life and into the past, before she was born. Trouble is, that idea’s so novel, it’s not clear how it works. Even stranger is the way that when Vicky flashes back, she’s more than just an observer. At least one person, her aunt Julia (Swala Emati), can actually see her during these visits — but again, the rules seem a bit hazy.
Can Vicky’s presence change the past? Did this child somehow will itself into existence, forcing her parents together? Alas, it’s all quite confusing, and young Dramé, who plays Vicky, isn’t yet a strong enough actor to convey this mysterious character’s inner motivations. Still, Mysius’ concept tickles the imagination: As children, none of us really knows our parents’ backstory, and in its highly original (if overcomplicated) way, “The Five Devils” gives this one girl a chance to discover the dramas and intrigues that predated her — like the inferno we see raging in the opening scene. It will take the rest of the movie (and several more leaps back in time by Vicky) to explain what exactly happened that night.
As far as the townspeople are concerned, it’s a good thing Julia was locked up after the fire. But Joanne and her husband, Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue), have a more complicated connection to the supposed pyromaniac, inviting Julia to stay with them after she’s released from prison. Vicky seems immediately threatened having this stranger in the home, and she sets out to make her stay uncomfortable, concocting a foul-smelling brew of dead crow and her own urine, plus various other stenches, which she slides under her bed.
Nosing through Julia’s possessions, she discovers a special vial — not quite magic, but witchy in its effect: One whiff from the tube, and Vicky is knocked out, sent back in time. During these trips, she starts to piece together the truth, discovering why her parents have such a cold, dispassionate marriage. Both were robbed of the women they loved, Vicky learns, which means her instincts were right: Julia really could be a disruptive force to her family, not because she’ll torch everything — though the possibility looms large — but because she wants to run away with Joanne. And isn’t that kind of the same thing in the end?
Psychologically, there’s a lot going on in “The Five Devils,” especially in its rich mother-daughter dynamic, and Mysius (a sought-after French screenwriter whose credits include Claire Denis’ “Stars at Noon” and Jacques Audiard’s “Paris, 13th District”) certainly has vision. But the “Ava” director is more ambitious than successful this time around.
The evocative project looks great, thanks to co-writer Paul Guilhaume’s gloomy but gorgeous widescreen cinematography, while odd noises and an unconventional, atonal score keep audiences on edge. But it doesn’t quite add up, such that the long-awaited explanation for that opening blaze ultimately fails to illuminate. The movie’s “Twilight Zone” coda is even more of a misfire. Vicky’s peculiar gift of smell may save the day in the end, but rather than enriching the cinematic experience, it renders it all slightly … well, nonsensical. Better to have stuck to the usual tools of sight and sound, in that case.