A lacerating film about the stunted lives of two children whose mother abandoned them when they were tiny, “The Devils” is a hard-hitting yet extremely sensitive contemporary drama. Distinguished by remarkable performances from young Adele Haenel and, especially, Vincent Rottiers, as the traumatized siblings, and directed with a sure hand by Christophe Ruggia, this impressive and at the same time deeply sad pic will pose a marketing challenge because of its very toughness, but should ride on critical support to solid niche business in many territories. Festival exposure will be important in the coming months.
Chloe (Haenel) is about 13, her brother Joseph (Rottiers) maybe a year younger. Chloe has been so severely damaged by a life of abandonment that her mind has been affected. She refuses to speak or to be touched, and she walks aimlessly hither and yon smiling strangely.
Joseph is a hardened street kid who looks older than his years, and he is fiercely protective of his older sister. He has always insisted that they be allowed to stay together; he hopes maybe they’ll eventually find their home and even the love he so obviously craves. But it’s a forlorn hope in a cruel world that keeps the siblings on the run and, when they steal as they are forced to do, hunts them down.
When they are placed in a home for disturbed children on the outskirts of Marseilles, it looks as though things may get better. Though Joseph automatically plots to escape, he puts his plans on hold when he learns that a doctor is perhaps getting through to Chloe.
However, after a violent confrontation with other kids, the pair makes an escape attempt, which ends when Chloe breaks her leg in a fall.
Then the unexpected happens. The authorities track down Joseph’s mother, who reveals that Chloe was not her child; when she abandoned her son, she placed him beside a little girl who had also been abandoned. This shocking news triggers more violence from the children, who go on the run once again, creating damage and havoc in their wake.
The film is at its best when it places the viewer inside the world of these battered, mentally damaged youngsters. Opening credits are accompanied by the plaintive song used in Charles Laughton’s film “The Night of the Hunter,” which has lyrics about little children who “fly away.” It makes for an evocative start to a film many will find painful to experience but that lingers in the memory.