“The Five Devils” Is a Time-Traveling Lesbian Romance About Lives Not Lived

It’s simple to mourn the alternate history where I came out as a teenager. It’s more complicated to mourn the alternate history where I came out later or not at all.

If I’d transitioned at 40 or never, I would have lived a much sadder life. But I also probably would have gotten married and had a child. I know I would’ve loved that child more than anything else in my life. I would’ve gone beyond the heteronormative duties of fatherhood and given everything I could have to that kid — just like I would’ve tried to be the best husband. There would have been limits. Maybe I could have been a good parent, a good partner, but my failures as a father and husband — whatever those gendered words mean — would’ve weighed on me and my hypothetical family. It would’ve been a worse life. And yet, I still sometimes mourn that normative way of being, that nonexistent child.

Léa Mysius’ fantastical new film The Five Devils is one of the most thought-provoking lesbian romances I’ve ever seen. It’s a love story, but it’s a love story told through the perspective of that hypothetical child — who in this case is not hypothetical, but the product of a tragedy that led three adults to live lives that in a just world they should’ve been able to avoid.

This child is Vicky (Sally Dramé), a girl with a superhuman sense of smell and endless curiosity. She doesn’t have any friends — the racist kids in her mostly white town bully her — opting to spend her time capturing smells in jars and helping out her swim coach mom. Vicky can tell her parents are not happy — but the reason why is only revealed when her aunt Julia arrives with a scent that knocks Vicky out and transports her (literally) to the past.

Vicky’s mom, Joanne, is played by Adèle Exarchopoulos, best known for her work in Blue is the Warmest Color. Talented young actresses who have made their start in controversial and sexual arthouse films have long been cast aside — especially when these experiences have involved abuse. It’s deeply meaningful to see her back in a queer movie, this time directed by a woman. Her performance here is proof that she’s worthy of celebration beyond her breakout role.

It has become common in recent lesbian cinema to have a white lead and a Black love interest — with race never being addressed and the love interest being a far less developed character. That’s not quite the case here. I’ll let other critics answer how the film captures the experience of being a Black child with a white mother, but I did appreciate that the film engages explicitly with race. It’s clear how being Black and from Senegal impacts Vicky’s dad, Jimmy,  in their small town. It’s also clear that Vicky’s aunt, Julia, has a slightly different experience having been born after their family came to France. And while the film primarily alternates between Vicky and Joanne’s perspectives, there are still moments taken with both Julia and Jimmy. It helps that Swala Emati as Julia and Moustapha Mbengue as Jimmy give beautiful performances that communicate much of what’s unspoken.

As Vicky begins transporting herself back to when her parents were teenagers, her family’s tragic past reveals itself. Joanne and Julia were lovers and faced a small town filled with homophobia, racism, and ableism. Then something happened, Julia went away, Joanne ended up with Julia’s brother, and Vicky was born.

Whenever Vicky travels back in time, Julia sees her. She reacts like any person might react when randomly seeing a child appear out of nowhere. This causes Julia to be labeled crazy by people in the town eager to find another way to other her. A lesser film would’ve saved the reveal that Vicky is the one causing her aunt to “go crazy.” Instead Mysius makes Vicky haunting Julia so she can be born the very plot of the movie.

This is complicated, narratively and thematically, but as the stories both past and present culminate, the film succeeds by living in that complexity. With a killer soundtrack, formal confidence, and strong performances, the film invites the audience to embrace the narrative’s chewiness. It’s at once a visceral cinematic experience and a work of art that demands post-viewing discussion.

There are so many different lives we can live. For many of us, as queer people, we have to let go of the lives we were raised to want as children. There is a loss to abandoning that normalcy — even if it’s surpassed by the exuberance of a life lived truly.

Every path we take, every life we live, has consequences. They also have gifts. The Five Devils understands what we have to lose — it also understands what we have to gain. It’s a celebration of queer life and all the gifts we might gather along the way.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 519 articles for us.

7 Comments

  1. I always loved stuff about time travel since I saw back to the future when I was like six or something. (Had giant crush on Lorraine.) paper girls was the first time where I got to see time traveling dykes and I was so disappointed to see it get canceled so this is a wonderful surprise!
    (But also Drew I’m really happy we’re in the timeline where you came out.)

  2. This sounds amazing. I heard a similar reflection on a podcast recently with a gay dad who came out later in life and had a beloved and adored daughter with his ex wife. The therapist asked him “have you ever talked to your daughter about how it feels to know that if you had lived your true earlier she would not exist?”. That caught me off guard as a poignant and under explored perspective.

  3. I didn’t think I could love this film any more (I saw it at its premiere in NYC, was completely blown away, just saw it again today in Toronto, and am seeing it tomorrow too — ok, I’m obsessed)…. And then I read your review. I knew I could count on you for an insightful and thought-provoking review (as always), but this is especially beautiful and so perfectly expresses the nuances and magic of this film. I’m so thankful for you and for Autostraddle <3

  4. I love this review.

    I’ve seen the film for the first time in a movie theater, in a screening room of more than 500 seats. It was full. The energy from the audience was amazing. You could feel it growing and people getting more and more excited.

    As for Adèle Exarchopoulos, I think she’s doing a lot of good stuff. She continues what she was doing in La Vie d’Adèle, this kind of visceral acting, using her seemingly messy, chaotic charisma. Rien à foutre (Zero fucks given) would be my favourite, probably; disgracefully underrated film about labour.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!