In 2017, Léa Mysius premiered Ava at Cannes, an exhilarating directorial debut and a vibrant coming of age tale that showcased a filmic bravado and the arrival of a thrilling new cinematic voice. Since then, the French screenwriter/director’s talents have been further affirmed through notable screenwriting collaborations with André Téchiné (Farewell to the Night), Arnaud Desplechin (Oh Mercy!), Jacques Audiard (Paris, 13th District), and Clarie Denis (Stars at Noon). Not content to be solely collecting co-writing credits with a who’s who of contemporary French cinema, however, Mysius has all the while been hard at work on her sophomore film — and so when she returned to the Croisette last year, she pulled double-duty promoting both Stars at Noon in the Main Competition and The Five Devils, her long-awaited sophomore directorial effort, which played in the Director’s Fortnight sidebar.
The Five Devils is a spirited blend of themes, ideas, and influences, another nervy coming-of-age thriller, this time following a young girl who journeys across time to uncover a secret buried in her mother’s past. Much like Ava, Mysius’ latest leads with its adventurous screenwriting and confident direction. Now, on the eve of its 2023 U.S. theatrical release (which also coincides with Ava being made available on Mubi), I connected with Mysius to probe deeper into her new film’s dominant themes, its racial subcurrents, the influence of American literature, and her overall writing process, whether it be collaborations with French auteurs or building out her own idiosyncratic worlds and visions.
Thinking through your approach to Ava and then coming to The Five Devils, I was curious what, if anything, might have changed in the way that you were writing and conceptualizing these films?
I’d say that whereas Ava was a much more linear film, a much sunnier film, mostly focused on this one character, [with] The Five Devils I wanted to find something a bit more complex and risky, drawing a gallery of characters, and I had a mosaic-like construction of the many layers of both time and dramaturgy that fed into the script. So really, the film was a bit of a reaction to Ava.
Does this require a different way of working, in that Ava had this free flow, whereas here we are seeing a much more orchestrated, controlled system of interconnected characters?
I say both films were very controlled, on set at least. But I do think that with The Five Devils, because it’s a much more complex story, there was a lot of work to do with camera movements for them. The mise en scène was much, much trickier because we had to keep it coherent because it was such an exploded construction, and that’s why perhaps it looks like there was a lot more control in it. I should add that in contrast to Ava, Paul Gilhaume and myself, what we wanted was to create a lot of movement to keep the movement going throughout the film, and movement is very hard to control, so that’s maybe perhaps why there’s this sense that it is controlled.
I saw this incredible quote of yours where you said: “My biggest satisfaction is when filmmakers start to believe they have written a scene themselves, even though it was me.” I was curious about the way that you work with some of these other French auteurs and how that writing differs in approach to when you’re working within your world.
It’s a very, very different process. I’d say, I mean, it’s the same job, but it works very differently. The closest I could describe it is like: I have two reservoirs, one of which is mine, and the other is for the other directors I write for. And when it’s mine, I dig in and find my own obsessions, desires, my own source material, my own images, and I feel quite free with it. I don’t need to explain it, I just go ahead and do it. Whereas the other one is very much the images and the source material of these other writers, and it’s very much seeing the world through their eyes. Personally, I couldn’t film what they’re writing, if you see what I mean, and perhaps that’s linked to this French concept of the auteur.
I remember seeing a clip of Samouni Road and there was a scene in there where a girl covers her eyes and that opens up this animated world, and the second I saw that I immediately thought of Ava. Are there moments where there is this spillover between the two reservoirs?
I mean, I’m not a robot, so there will be things that escape me, but I try not to put in what is “of me.” So for example, right now I’m writing something about a couple, and there will be images from my own bank that will translate into this film, but then ultimately it’s the role of the director. It’s up to the director whether or not to use them, but the barrier between the two is porous.
Back to your world and your reservoir — you’ve mentioned that [The Five Devil’s protagonist] Vicky’s obsession with scents has a link to your past in your childhood. Are there specific scents that you remember back from your childhood that have stuck with you from those days?
Yeah, I’d say both sight and smell were very much senses that I really sought as a child. And I wonder if it’s maybe because I grew up in the countryside [that] I had this desire to smell everything around me. And I do think as a sense it’s quite maligned by humans, maybe because there’s something a bit animalistic about it, in contrast to things like hearing, which we often associate with beautiful things like music. I’ve just had a daughter, for example, and I realize how we stimulate children by showing them images, visually or even orally. But, I, for example, try and get her to smell things. I want to develop that sense that we tend to not focus on too much once we leave childhood behind. There’s a condition that I find fascinating: synesthesia, when someone mixes those senses in their mind. So one particular smell will automatically trigger a color or a sound will trigger a color and vice versa.
Vicky’s sense of smell as it relates to her journey of understanding her mother takes up the bulk of the film. But there is another journey where Vicky is searching for a part of herself, and we see this idea of race playing into it — where she is clinging to her [white] mother and perhaps pushing away from her [Black] father. And the racism she encounters contributes to it. You had previously mentioned the writing of James Baldwin and Maya Angelou influencing you, and I was curious to hear you elaborate a little bit more about your thoughts on that and how their work inspired you.
Yes, indeed. I mean, it wasn’t just Baldwin and Maya Angelou, but whilst I was writing the script, I was very much inspired by U.S. literature, even including Jim Harrison or [Jonathan] Franzen, and I wanted to see how I could use that inspiration without imposing very U.S.-specific concepts onto France that would seem completely artificial. It made me think, how do we talk about race in France, when it’s less clear-cut than it is in the U.S. And in France, there is a lot of racism, but it’s much more insidious, a bit like a poison, and I wanted to tackle it without making it very explicit, which tends to put people off and make them very defensive, and make them deny the reality by feeling that it’s too much of a caricature.
So I thought, right, what realistically would be a mixed race family in the countryside? I thought, well, it’s unlikely they’re going to be Americans, so chances are they’re going to come from Senegal. I wanted it to be this mixed race family that is living a normal life, like there are in the French countryside, without denying that they also face racism. But instead of portraying it as very explicit, I wanted to show it more as an atmosphere, as an oppressive atmosphere, that imbues life in this village, and that’s how I feel is the best way to translate the racism in France.
And to go even beyond that, the quest for Vicky to uncover this past is born out of the weight she carries of things unsaid, the things that remain unsaid, but not only inside her family, but within her community and, on a larger scale, her country. Because when we think of things that are unsaid in France, there are things like colonialism and racism that we deny, things we just don’t speak of openly. So it’s very much a way of linking those familial taboos with the village and on a larger scale the country.
I think this mirrors what you had accomplished in Ava, where there is the constant presence of fascism around the edges. I had read that you wanted to have your next film have a more political lean, and I’m curious whether you would have these politics — which have been in the background, percolating — be pushed to the forefront for your next work?
Yeah, I mean, I’m right in the middle of that process, and it keeps changing. And the political angle keeps coming back, and it scares me because it’s now becoming a subject matter and I don’t like working with subject matters. I like working with moments, with storylines, not subjects, and the question I’m grappling with is how to really talk about society without it becoming the subject of the film.
You ended The Five Devils with “Cuatro Vientos,” a gorgeous song about the wind coming in, and it has this mystical quality of equilibrium. Could you talk about that choice and how it tied into your thought process about where the film ends?
Yeah, it was actually the DP Paul Gilhaume who found that specific song, and I think it perfectly embodies the happy open-end that I wanted [the film] to have. Because initially there’s a lot of chaos, and I like the idea that eventually the chaos organizes itself and we find this balance, which then allows us to find freedom and love.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 13.