The pulsating ferocity of Her Smell comes on right off the bat. From the moment the film begins, we are sent on a journey through turmoil, through one person’s vices and insecurities. Its rock star protagonist used to be a superstar, but Her Smell gives us precious few glimpses of that. It focuses more on her calamitous downturn, when the fans stop showing up and her sanity begins to wain. Elisabeth Moss – one of our very best film actors – plays that rock star, named Becky Something, a curious, wandering stage name that does nothing to reveal the aching person she happens to be. Becky Something is an icon to her fans, but to herself, she is a lost being who has been consumed by the pressures of that adoration. Few people experience the true monstrousness of her behavior, but the few that do know it all too well.
Becky Something fronts Something She, which ruled the charts in the heydey of 90s garage rock. They’re a three-piece band that also includes bass player Marielle (Agyness Deyn) and drummer Ali (Gayle Rankin). Her Smell‘s more intense moments are cut between more intimate home video footage of their peak, including a cover spread on Spin Magazine and framed platinum records – which they happily shatter like the rock stars they are. By the beginning of the film, though, Something She and Becky have hit a bit of snag. Forced into smaller venues, and torn apart by drug use and infighting, Something She seems to be perpetually on the verge of collapse. Not helping matters is Becky’s erratic behavior aided not only by drugs and alcohol, but a personal posse of shamans (including Eka Darville) that give esoteric form to her worst paranoias.
The film’s script, written by the movie’s director, Alex Ross Perry, is framed in five extended parts, usually before or after performances, always centered on Becky’s fragile state. Marielle and Ali are frequently whirling around Becky’s hostile attitude, as she constantly spouts nonsensical soliloquies filled with empty, drug-fueled wisdoms. Also trying to set her straight is an ex-husband (Dan Stevens) who’s only around in search of child support for their infant daughter, as well as Becky’s mother Ania (Virginia Madsen), whose sweet, caring disposition belies the state of her very angry child. There’s also She Something’s manager, Howard (a perfectly-cast Eric Stoltz), who is used to the hijinks, but whose patience is running thin. His reputation is tied to Becky and the band, and now it is sinking along with it.
Coinciding with She Something’s downward trend is the rise of other artists, like Zelda E. Zekial (Amber Heard), an artist who used to open for She Something who has now hit it big with a new, more mainstream sound. There’s also the Aker Girls (Cara Delevigne, Ashley Benson, Dylan Gelula), a scrappy punk group that Howard cobbles together to compensate for Becky’s waning fame. Both trigger professional jealousy, adding another spark to an already fiery situation. In the film’s second sequence, the Aker Girls meet Becky, ready to play the role of sycophantic acolytes. All too soon they encounter the Becky that Ali and Marielle are more familiar with. By this point, any genius Becky had is stunted, lost in a haze of drugs and rage. Her resentments run deep and they do not go undeclared.
Her Smell‘s long, feverish scenes – each detailing a specific aspect of Becky’s instability – often spiral into hysterics, occasional violence, or at the very least severely hurt feelings. Perry’s craftsmanship here recalls the giants of Twentieth Century drama, O’Neill, Williams, Albee. Like those writers, Perry builds Her Smell on an ever growing build-up of despair, lingering endlessly on Becky’s constant neuroticism and malice. Perry, more commonly known for manneristic dramadies along the lines of Listen Up Philip and last year’s Golden Exits goes somewhere completely different here. His other films seemed disdainful of emotions, too flippant and sarcastic for the feelings his characters may have. Here, he makes something truly sincere. There’s an actual love and concern for Becky that resonates in every scene.
Shot with Sean Price Williams, Perry fills Her Smell with jarring close ups, long tracking shots, unnerving zooms. The use of music and dialogue will remind many of Altman, but what Perry is doing feels even more direct than that. His grip on the film’s level of melodrama is strident and clear. Perry shoots the film to visualize not only Becky’s anguish and disintegration, but the helplessness of those around her. Every sequence, built on an emotional house of cards, has its own distinct formal structure, but they also share an affliction. The degree to which the director asks us to share in Becky’s pain can be difficult, especially when that pain is then reflected onto others. Never before have I seen a rock n’ roll film so viscerally echo the endless, sunken nothingness of American fame.
There are many times when I think that Elisabeth Moss is amongst the best actors on the planet. Her range and power are so that she seems to succeed in any role, sliding in and out between supporting parts and leading roles. Her Smell is the biggest opportunity she has gotten to lead a movie, and she’s asked to do something so incredibly difficult. Perry fills the script with unhinged monologues, interspersed between acts of self-destruction so jarring it makes you wonder for Moss’ state as they filmed it. It is not surprising to see Moss give such an all-out effort for this performance, but to see such a talented actor work within a system where everything – the filmmaking, the writing, and the supporting cast – is working perfectly to highlight her work, that’s pretty rare indeed. And Moss is the caliber of actor who is worthy of it.
It would be too easy to bring up the name Courtney Love if it wasn’t so readily obvious that she is the foundation on which Becky is based. Making a film about a Courtney Love-like character isn’t interesting in and of itself, but to the degree that Her Smell is about Love, it is in a way that is completely separated from Kurt Cobain – and that is a thought that I haven’t seen before. The film doesn’t get much at all into sexism, because – again – it’s too obvious. Becky’s excess is met with concern when a male peer’s would be met with romantic cheers. What Her Smell does do is take a torch to the 90’s nostalgia that has permeated contemporary media culture for the last decade (remember when Captain Marvel ended to the tune of Hole’s “Celebrity Skin”?), and leaves us with what remains of the things we think back so fondly on.
Written and Directed by Alex Ross Perry