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NYFF: Elisabeth Moss's Primal Scream in "Her Smell"

Jason Adams reporting on the New York Film Festival which kicks off Friday

On The Handmaid's Tale Elisabeth Moss is all internalized feminist rage - a sublimated sneer, her Offred says one thing ("Under His eye"), but her eyes, the curl of her mouth, (and also her voice-over) say quite another. But what of her smell? Oh no, Handmaids don't get to stink. They are clean and holy vessels, scrubbed raw of female afflictions. Rock Stars, on the other hand... the real world ain't Gilead (not quite yet anyway) and we're still gonna scream and stink and scream. And Alex Ross Perry's Her Smell screams. Primal screams. This is the rage we've been waiting for...

That's not to position this as an explicit Feminist Statement Film, except so far as it's become necessary to smash the pedestals and show women as human, flawed and damaged and often self-desctuctive, but not any more mysterious in their instincts, motherly or otherwise, than the men are. Hey fellas, surprise surprise, the ladies can snarl and they can stink too - they can too rage (and rage, and rage) against the machines. 

As if to answer the question, "You want shrill?" with "You haven't seen shrill, motherfuckers," the first twenty or so minutes of Her Smell are a taunt, a dare, a headache waiting to happen. We don't get to see our women in our movies get to act like this all that much, and Perry matches it with aggressive punk film-making - restless cameras, close-ups aimed at pores clogged with glitter and coke dust, the under wailing of guitar strings plucking at our nerves as insanity flows freely like cheap scotch backstage.

And Moss, drunk on adrenaline, burns up the stage and the screen and everybody she comes into contact with. This is a performance anybody interested in acting will be studying for as long as acting is a thing to be interested in - truly fearless, often ugly and cruel, the smell of it emanates into the audience and we get high off of it ourselves. These are the rise ups and come downs of the presence of the extraordinary. Scars and stink and all. And it's not all big - she's just as fascinating and brutally honest in her quiet moments. There's a mid-film scene of heartbreaking delicacy that had me a true believing mess. Hallelujah and Hail Mary, amen.

It's not an all-female cast (there is a fine emasculated sweat pouring off from Dan Stevens as The Ex and Eric Stoltz as The Manager) but this is the women's show to put on and, as we quickly suss out, Moss might suck up all the oxygen but the women around her (Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin as her band-mates, Virginia Madsen as her mother, Cara Delevingne and Dylan Gelula and Ashley Benson and Amber Heard as those sucked into her orbit) are the ones provide the sweet, sweet oxygen in the first place. It's a stellar circle of folks (especially Deyn) spinning around Moss' out-of-control focal point, coming undone in their own individualized ways. We're each and all tumbling towards oblivion, the film says, so grab somebody tight and scream, scream as one loud sound.

Her Smell plays the New York Film Festival on September 29th and 30th.

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Reader Comments (5)

Is there another actress her age that's built up a résumé like hers? Three of the most iconic shows of her time, a Palme d'Or winner, muse to an auteur (Perry), and work with Campion, Wheatley, Salles...

September 26, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

I watched the teaser for this recently and it’s basically her doing this crazy, but absolutely fantastic monologue. It changes course so many times and I just can’t wait to see this movie.

September 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

Even at the age of 9 on my fave of all time Picket Fences, she showed a subversive courage I never got over. She's on such an artistic ride now. Brava.

September 27, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I caught this one in Toronto, and while it's an odd, not always pleasant film, Elisabeth Moss owns it!!! What stays with me, though, is her rendition of Heaven (which is a welcome respite from the chaotic energy that the film offers up in its first hour, and a sequence that allows us to simply watch Moss do what she does). I don't think this film will be for everyone, and I do think it takes too long to get to its conclusion, but it's a worthwhile experience...

September 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

Richter Scale - her singing "Heaven" is the scene I was talking about when I said "There's a mid-film scene of heartbreaking delicacy that had me a true believing mess" -- one of THE SCENES of the year as far as I'm concerned. I've got goosebumps right now even thinking about it.

September 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJason

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