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The Five Devils

The Five Devils comes to UK cinemas this week under the weight of expectation from the buzz it created at Cannes. With reports of a five-minute standing ovation, there’s a feeling that it could well be the newest entrant to a long queue of films that have had a hard time living up a festival’s reaction. The problem with Cannes specifically, though, is its sheer size. It’s so big and so long that it tends to push reasonable people into their most extreme selves, heightening their opinions with frightening regularity. The distinction between a film that gets a lengthy round of applause and one that gets booed out of the building can be as little as the weather on the day, as sometimes it feels as if the experience of being at Cannes is being reviewed and reacted to rather than the films that are showing.

That said, The Five Devils absolutely deserves its praise.

Having looked at other reviews, there seems to be two strands of takes that don’t sit quite right. One is that it’s reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan’s work, which there is some basis for, and the other is that it can’t quite achieve what it aims for because it’s set around a sense that we don’t specifically use for film - smell.

In terms of the M. Night Shyamalan comparison, it perhaps exists in the same space as some of his work rather than appearing to take much inspiration from it. It’s a story of magical realism which isn’t quite a horror nor a fantasy, but it certainly isn’t a straight up drama either.

The mechanics of why it happens aren’t really explored on a conceptual level, neither is how it happens beyond the process by which it happens, but the narratives focuses on Vicky. She’s the young daughter of Joanne and Jimmy, and she possesses a kind of gift that wouldn’t seem out of place in an episode of The X-Files. She’s able to transport herself through time and space by recreating and bottling smells for future reference. It doesn’t matter whether she was there to smell it originally or not, which is where things become slightly unclear. It just seems to be that by recreating a smell that’s associated with a particular moment she’s able to go and investigate that point in time. It’s not exactly nonsensical, but it isn’t fleshed out as a concept either.

This is where the second criticism comes in - that we’re viewing a film that relies on the sense of smell to tell it’s story.

When Jimmy’s sister, Julia, comes to town and needs somewhere to stay, something isn’t entirely right. Joanne can’t bear to have her staying in her home and she makes no secret of that to Jimmy, and it’s all presented as a fairly normal family dynamic where in-laws have a difficult relationship. Vicky, by finding a mysterious vial that Julia brings with her, is able to see deeper into the dynamic than what we initially are. If it was perhaps something that was audiovisual instead it might be more obvious as to what’s going on, but it isn’t exactly beyond comprehension, and it wouldn’t exactly change anything anyway.

She’s able to go back and see first-hand why Julia’s arrival is as difficult as it is, there’s an interesting paradox in that she appears to be influencing the past at the same time as observing it. Beyond that, it’s actually really difficult to talk about much without erring into territory that’s better to discover from the film itself.

It’s all quite a clever allegory for something that’s a bit bigger. It’s about how the past leaves an indelible imprint on the future that comes from it, but it also ponders how much of an impact the future can have on the past. There’s a meditative quality to it that leaves us questioning what the past even is, to what extent it exists and ultimately what control we have over it. On the way to putting all of this together it can certainly be accused of having some rules that don’t entirely make sense or stay consistent, or an idea that doesn’t quite land, but if one of the purposes of art is to pose such existential questions then the mechanics of how we get there are certainly forgivable.

In fact, there’s really one problem with the lack of explanation to it all. The connection between Vicky’s sense of smell and how she’s able to influence the past as a result of it is presented almost as if it’s something that we should already be familiar with. As if it’s a well-known piece of folklore or theology, but it isn’t. That said, that’s usually how these things start anyway.

Ultimately, The Five Devils is a story of great humanity. It has us questioning what is perhaps the greatest human concept in existence - that of time itself. The idea that only the present exists is quite a familiar philosophical idea, but the idea that the past can change in order to suit the future is something that could be far more valuable. Even if we aren’t able to do it in such an explicit way as Vicky is.

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