French filmmaker Léa Mysius follows her nose in “The Five Devils,” focusing on the sense of smell. That’s her protagonist’s special gift, one that scares her mother (“Blue Is the Warmest Color” actor Adèle Exarchopoulos) but allows her to venture beyond the constraints of time and space.
Shown in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight – with Wild Bunch on board – it’s Mysius’ second feature film as a director following “Ava,” awarded at the French fest in 2017. She also co-wrote Claire Denis’ “The Stars at Noon,” presented in the main competition.
“It all started when I was a kid – I was fascinated by smells,” Mysius tells Variety.
“Together with my sister, we had fun making these little potions. We grew up in the countryside, which helped us develop that sense even more. One of my friends told me that growing up in Paris, he had to ‘close off’ his nostrils for good.”
Mysius didn’t want to focus on the art of perfumery, however. Instead, she came up with the little girl Vicky – played by Sally Dramé – who is trying to capture the essence of her mother, resigned into a life she didn’t quite want.
“I liked the idea of having this girl bear the weight of her family’s past. In a way, she can ‘smell’ that something is wrong. She senses her mother’s suffering.”
As the film enters a more magical, darker realm, Mysius still didn’t want to waste time explaining its rules.
“We don’t know what’s in that potion [that Vicky is smelling.] We don’t know why it has magic powers,” she says.
“It’s a genre film, but I do believe that magic exists all over the world. Even in France! There was magic where I grew up. Vicky has inherited her gift from her aunt. It’s a power that some individuals, especially women, just have.”
There is a reason why smells, and not that famous taste of madeleine, allow her protagonist to access past events, she argues.
“Scientifically speaking, the side of the brain that connects us to memory is close to the one that allows us to smell things. Through taste, we are able to ‘relive’ something that has to do with the past. But it’s much easier to remember it all through smell.”
“In his book called ‘La nuit sexuelle,’ Pascal Quignard argues that before they are born, children experience catastrophic visions: Visions of fire, violent blows,” she says.
“My film also starts with fire and cries, as if I was depicting something I saw back then. But ultimately, Vicky is able to do what we all wish we could: She can access memories that are not just her own and discover her parents’ secrets.”
By doing that, she can finally establish an identity of her own. Tormented because of her mixed-race background and rarely leaving her mother’s side, Vicky gets to see another side of her. Before marriage and family, when she was still in love with another woman.
“Vicky is not willing to accept her background just yet – she is more willing to accept her ‘white’ side, embodied by her mother. Her attachment is so strong that she literally captures the smell of her mother in the pot!”
“I thought about this girl, trying to hold onto the rope of a hot-air balloon. She doesn’t want it to fly away in the sky, she wants her mother to stay,” says Mysius, agreeing that racism is also one of the themes in the film.
“There is this tension that has to do with her different skin color, something that everyone in the village certainly notices. But they are against this family from the start, mostly because of the past tragedy.”
Last year in Cannes, Mysius promoted romantic drama “Paris, 13th District” alongside director Jacques Audiard, which they co-wrote with Céline Sciamma. Now, she is awaiting the premiere of Claire Denis’ “The Stars at Noon,” starring Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn. The screenplay was co-written by Denis and Andrew Litvack.
“When I write for someone else, I try to put myself in their shoes. Try and grasp their vision of the world and comply with it, up to the smallest details,” she explains.
“There is my own personality in there somewhere as well, but it always needs to marry their intention. This way of working is probably influenced by the fact that in France, independent filmmaking usually has to do with the politics of auteur theory. My biggest satisfaction is when filmmakers start to believe they have written a scene themselves, even though it was me.”