In Léa Mysius’ sophomore feature The Five Devils, a queer romance is cut short due to an unfortunate tragedy. A child discovers a way to delve into her mother’s complicated past. The French movie mixes up the family drama and supernatural horror genres in a manner that is bewildering and fascinating at the same time. The outcome of that is an intriguing movie that has many faults when it comes to the plot but still manages to enthrall you with its bizarre story.
Even though time travel still remains a concept relegated to science-fiction, there is one unwritten rule to it. If you go back and mess up things that have already happened, then you endanger your present reality. This movie puts that theory in a pretty challenging spot, and thus it defies time-travel 101. Unfortunately, it is more confusing than convincing, especially in its final act. But even then, there is a lot to talk about in The Five Devils, and its ending scene screams for an explanation.
Plot Synopsis: What Happens In ‘The Five Devils’?
A group of young girls, all wearing glittery clothes, look at an all-consuming fire. One of them, Joanne, looks back with a frightened face. Joanne, now reasonably older, is a water aerobics instructor at an indoor swimming pool. Her daughter, eight-year-old Vicky, gets spooked by another pool worker, Nadine, who has a partially burned face. It appears that Joanne and Nadine are friends who regularly hang out outside of work. Joanne is married to Jimmy Soler, a stoic-looking man of limited words, who works as a firefighter. The Soler family lives in a small French town amidst the mountains, where everyone knows each other.
Why Does Joanne Get Spooked By Her Daughter?
Life doesn’t seem to move for Joanne. Her relationship with Jimmy lacks any sort of spark, and her overall life is not much better either. Her only source of happiness is swimming in the icy-cold lake in the town. Every day, before going to swim, Vicky applies milking grease all over her mother and starts a twenty-minute timer when Joanne dives into the lake. When the twenty-minute period gets over, Vicky alerts her mother so that she can come out of the cold water to avoid any chance of hypothermia. Both Joanne and Vicky seem to enjoy their time at the lake, implying the mother-daughter duo is really close to each other.
One day, after Joanne goes into the water, Vicky collects the remaining grease from her hand in a jar. The label of the jar reads “Mom 3”, hinting that there are two other “Mom” jars. It is soon revealed that Vicky collects several other items like pinecones and insects and keeps those in separate jars, which seems to be nothing but a harmless hobby of a lonely child. Joanne soon discovers that her daughter has an extremely heightened sense of smell, something that allows her to find anything from a long distance, even when she is blindfolded. Joanne gets weirded out by this and consults her father, who lives close by. But Joanne’s father ignores it and asks her to focus on her relationship with Jimmy instead. He even offers to babysit Vicky so that Joanne and her husband can get some one-on-one time. Joanne doesn’t seem to be pleased with the idea. At home, Vicky overhears her parents discussing the imminent arrival of Jimmy’s sister, Julia. While Jimmy is rather happy about it, Joanne is clearly against the idea.
Why Does Joanne Not Want Julia In Their Home?
A rare cheery-looking Jimmy and a visibly displeased Joanne receive Julia upon her arrival. Vicky, who has never met her aunt before, goes through Julia’s stuff and finds a mysterious bottle. She steals the bottle and one of Julia’s sweaters. Inside an empty jar, Vicky puts some whiskey, a little bit of the unspecified liquid from Julia’s bottle, and some of the sweater. She labels it “Julia”. When everyone is asleep at night, Vicky takes a sniff from that jar. This is where the Supernatural elements kick in. Vicky wakes up at a parking lot and sees a group of young girls coming towards her; one of them happens to be a younger Joanne, and another one of them is Nadine, but her face is still unblemished. However, they don’t seem to see Vicky.
The group of girls enters a gymnasium, where they are soon introduced to a new girl, Julia. Vicky witnesses the whole thing, but soon she is transported back to her room. The next day, she pours some more liquid from Julia’s bottle into one of her jars and takes another trip down memory lane. This time, after waking up in the middle of a road, Vicky discovers that her father used to be in a relationship with Nadine. And her mother clearly seemed to have a romantic thing going with Julia. Vicky approaches Joanne, who is giving Julia a head massage, but Julia sees Vicky and freaks out.
It becomes quite clear why Joanne doesn’t want Julia at her home. She is not just Jimmy’s sister but also happens to be her former lover, which clearly makes her uncomfortable. Joanne has moved on from whatever happened in the past and definitely doesn’t want Julia in her present. At least, that’s what it looks like. However, Joanne slowly warms up to Julia, and the two share a lighter moment while cooking an octopus.
What Really Happened Between Joanne And Julia?
I really liked how the movie puts Vicky at the center of the narrative and tells us what happened in the past through her eyes only. All the flashbacks we see are from Vicky’s sniffing trips in Julia’s memory stream. However, while it seems intriguing initially, as things start to get clear (and obvious), the novelty of this storytelling structure fizzles out.
Naturally inquisitive and observant, Vicky keeps peeking into her mother’s past in order to find out what she doesn’t know. On one of the trips, Vicky finds out that not only were Joanne and Julia heavily in love; Joanne even made a plan to run away with Julia to Marseille after the Christmas gala. When Joanne loses one of her earrings, Vicky takes it with her and returns to the present. Meanwhile, Julia keeps getting continuous visions of Vicky from the past, which keeps driving her insane- despite both Jimmy and Joanne trying their best to calm her down.
Knowing the truth about her mother and aunt only confuses Vicky further, as she subconsciously starts resenting Julia for messing up her family. To make sure Julia goes away, Vicky boils a dead crow and makes a stinky potion with it by mixing some of the liquid from Julia’s bottle. She puts the liquid under Julia’s bed. At night, Julia dreams about her younger self until she gets a vision of Vicky and wakes up screaming, in horror. Joanne decides to punish Vicky by not taking her to the lake the next day. Instead, she decides to go with Julia. Before leaving, Julia tells Vicky that she is aware of what Vicky is doing and warns her to stop; otherwise, everything will go downhill.
‘The Five Devils’ Ending Explained: What Happens To The Soler Family?
The Five Devils not only uses a child as the main storytelling device, but thanks to Paul Guilhaume’s haunting cinematography, it also manages to use the somber, atmospheric charm of the town. The heavy use of the colors blue and black only enhances the chilly, anxiety-inducing vibe of the narrative. The four elements—fire, earth, water, and air—also play an essential role in the depiction of this family drama.
There is also a not-so-subtle racism angle here, with Jimmy being a Senegalese man who’d immigrated to France, which automatically makes Vicky a mixed-race kid and the only one in the town. And given that the townspeople are mostly narrow-minded and racist, Vicky fails to make any friends as she continuously gets bullied by the white kids at her school. This makes Joanne her only friend and the most important person in her life. Vicky’s hatred for Julia comes from the insecurity of losing her mother. I am going to talk about this in detail, but first, let us go through the final act of the movie.
At the lake, Julia finally confesses that the only reason she came to visit was to see Joanne. Vicky sneaks out of her grandfather’s house and sees her mother and aunt in a tender embrace, post Joanne’s swim. This only makes Vicky more angry, and she rushes to take another trip to the past. This time, she ends up in the gymnasium on the day of the Christmas gala. While Joanne, Nadine, and all the other girls perform like a well-oiled clock, Julia sneaks out and packs their bags in her car. She sees Vicky again, and this time she wants to end this thing once and for all. While Vicky hides from Julia inside the Christmas tree, Julia tries to burn the tree. The fateful fire breaks out and spreads out to the gymnasium. Everyone in the town sees Julia with the burning torch in her hand. We get back to the first scene of the movie, where Joanne looks at the fire with horror. However, the most unfortunate thing happens to Nadine, who accidentally gets trapped and burned.
In the present, Nadine finds out that Julia had been staying at the Solers’. Enraged, she violently attacks Joanne and insults her in front of everyone, while Joanne is on her lifeguard duty at the pool. A distraught Joanne ends up at the local bar in the evening with Jimmy, Julia, and Vicky. With the whole town now pretty much hating her, Joanne doesn’t seem to care anymore and indulges herself in romantic karaoke with Julia in front of everyone. Back at home, Vicky talks about her insecurities to her father and raises the very obvious question: would she have existed if Joanne had run away with Julia? This further explains all of Vicky’s activities and everything she has done for Julia up until now. The movie puts the audience in a moral dilemma by raising the question regarding the hypotheticality of Vicky’s existence in an alternate timeline where Joanne and Julia’s love blossoms fully.
It also puts Jimmy in a very uncomfortable situation with his sister and wife. If the two had run away in the past, Jimmy probably would have ended up with Nadine. I can only assume that after the freak accident, Nadine isolated herself and drifted away from Jimmy. Although Jimmy getting together with Joanne and having a kid does seem a bit far-fetched, the movie is set in a small town after all, and Joanne was in a perplexed state after the fire, so it can be accepted. But the two of them could never really love each other, and the lack of anything in their marital relationship now only makes sense. However, it is implied that Jimmy was the one who closed himself off, which ruined any chances of Joanne having anything substantial with him. A heavily stressed, frustrated Joanne screams at her husband, and Jimmy asks her to get out of the room. That’s the only fight we see between the Soler couple. Joanne quickly apologizes to her husband, and Jimmy closes the door, hinting at the fact that he has had enough. At least for the night. The next day, a rage-fueled Jimmy goes to Nadine, and the two of them end up rekindling their lost love in a rather animalistic manner.
One of Vicky’s birds dies, and she blames Julia for it. Burying the dead bird in the ground, Vicky asks Joanne if she would have loved her if she hadn’t existed. Finally understanding what is going on with her daughter, Joanne tightly embraces Vicky and assures her that nothing is more important to her than Vicky. This reassures Vicky that her mother still loves her, and she stops feeling threatened by Julia’s presence. What further helps her is when she sees Julia packing her bags to leave. A rather cheerful Vicky sees her mother in a pensive mood before entering school, so she gives Joanne the lost earring. While Vicky gives it to her mother to make her happy, this triggers Joanne. She rushes back home, probably to see Julia one final time. But instead of Julia, she finds a note saying “Thanks”.
With nothing to live for, Julia heads to the lake and deliberately drowns herself in the chilly water in order to get hypothermia, which would potentially end her sorrowful life. Before letting the water take her, we see Julia sniffing from one of Vicky’s jars, labeled “mom”. Julia gets one last vision of her and Joanne’s happy time, until it goes all dark for her. Somehow, Vicky realizes what her aunt is up to, and she rushes to the lake with Joanne. The two of them find Julia’s senseless body outside the water. Hypothermia has kicked in, but Julia is still alive. Joanne and Vicky embrace Julia to warm her up. While doing that, Vicky asks her mother if she could live without Julia. Joanne responds that she doesn’t know. Then she further adds that, no matter what she is going through, her love for Vicky will always remain the same.
Jimmy arrives with the necessary rescue, and Julia is taken to the hospital. Instead of going with his sister, Jimmy asks Joanne to accompany Julia. Inside the ambulance, Julia wakes up, and she and Joanne lovingly look at each other. Jimmy’s final action only suggests that he has finally accepted how things are. At home, Vicky comforts her father, and the two start to dance, embracing each other. The camera focuses on the surprised face of an unknown little girl who keeps watching Jimmy and Vicky dancing.
Now, while I applaud the movie for not leaving us with an absolutely dark ending, the final scene doesn’t make sense to me. The obvious question is: who would that little girl be? Now it is not Julia’s younger self, as firstly, we have seen her before in that dream sequence, and secondly, the time travel in this movie is limited to the past only. Which brings me to my theory: one member of the Soler family from each generation possesses the time-traveling power. It was Julia at first, who didn’t time-travel by herself, but only because of her power she could see Vicky from the future. In the movie’s timeline, it was obviously Vicky. The little girl in the end can only be Vicky’s daughter from the future, trying to see what her mother was up to. The question that still remains is, Why?
It can’t be answered, unfortunately. While The Five Devils is a very interesting watch, the time-travel mechanism of the movie is flawed and doesn’t make much sense. That effectively stops us from forming theories about the final scene. How Vicky got the alert about Julia trying to end her life is also confusing, but it can still be explained with the possible connection between the two of them due to their powers. However, beyond all the magic realism and time travel, The Five Devils stands up against all the wrong things about society and subtly gives us the message of accepting the unconventional. It’s not a perfect film by any means, but because of what it tries to convey, the movie should definitely matter.