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« April Foolish Predictions #7: Screenplay, Director, and Best Picture | Main | Howard Keel Centennial: "Calamity Jane" »
Thursday
Apr112019

Review: Her Smell

by Chris Feil

Some audiences may be unprepared for the full force slap that Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell has in store. It pulls no punches from the jump, immediately plopping us into the halls of a hellish backstage captured in serpentine camera fluidity. We’re immediately caught in the circus of early-90s addict punk rocker Becky Something, a monstrous and damaged creation from Perry’s muse Elisabeth Moss. And just as you get used to the manic construction around her, as Perry douses us in a fecund sound design and sweaty neon palette, the film shifts into something quite moving and rigorous on all of its levels. This is something more ambitious and soul-baring than the music dramas to which we’ve grown accustomed.

Told in real-time across several extended segments, Her Smell meets Becky after her downfall has already begun. The days of magazine covers and sold-out arenas have been lost to drug-addled paranoia, with her Something She bandmates Marielle and Ali (Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin) beginning to lose patience. As Becky continues to alienate everyone around her, enter an upcoming band molded in Something She’s image and an onslaught of lawsuits. The collapse is long coming; what comes after hurts just as hard.

Each of Perry’s five acts in the narrative play like different albums from the same band, achieving tones that range from fevered to confrontational to hollowed all while maintaining cohesiveness. It’s a risky approach but his touch is unpretentious. Instead, each new chapter serves to unearth new shades of Becky’s insecurities while expanding its musical study on a specific era of music unexamined by narrative cinema. By the time the film reaches its exhaustive conclusion, through angry rock and reflective ballads, it feels like we’ve witnessed some kind of exorcism.

Part of what ascends Her Smell to the next level of essential contemporary filmmaking is how Perry molds the film into a redemption narrative without succumbing to sentiment. A lesser film might sanitize its neuroses as shifts towards uplift, but Her Smell remains on an edge. Becky’s repentance doesn’t suddenly make her less of a pain in the ass, the willingness of her circle to support her doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds. There’s an authenticity of addiction recovery depicted here that feels uncommon, with messy honesty and without tidy movie closure. Basically, the movie never sells out or goes mainstream.

But all of this is bolstered by the seismic performance by Elisabeth Moss. The movie pivots on her unpredictability as she spouts reams of text in rapid fire fury, with a devilish wit among the most vicious weapons in her arsenal. Imagine Linda Blair playing Axl Rose in a Chekhov play and you’ll get close to insanity of what Moss achieves here. Close only because that doesn’t include the high-wire, Rowlands-ian humanity that not only blossoms in the film’s crushingly quiet moments, but also those crazed ones as well.

The performance feels dangerous, utterly absorbing though you don’t want to get too close for fear that she could pounce at any moment. As her defenses become exposed and her causticness remains at a simmer, Moss’ raw vulnerability is the kind of stuff we will spend the rest of the year (and beyond) discussing.

The actress is a towering presence, but the ensemble that surrounds her deserves their share of praise. Deyn is her foremost sparring partner, diving into her own depths of resentment and addiction with rich feeling. Dan Stevens is most understated as Becky’s ex-husband, thoughtfully measured as Becky fails and sputters to care for their daughter. Rankin serves a sly wit throughout, providing a groundedness to the chaos without deceiving it. Meanwhile, there is also Eric Stoltz, Virginia Madsen, Amber Heard and more making Perry’s vision feel like an extended world for Becky and her musical playground.

As Her Smell evolves to reveal its full self, like the most exciting of musical acts, its impresses in its surprisingly expansive breadth. When Becky begins to heal, the film becomes a character study in which persona is both defense mechanism and a self-injected poison. Becky has become so consumed by her cloak of drugs and anarchy that her sense of self crumbles along with her relationships and careers. It’s not just about an era of music or the kinds of personalities that occupied it, but it speaks to the pathos that birthed them.

If Perry’s previous films had been somewhat defined by their intimacy, then Her Smell takes a blowtorch to their modesty. It’s a gnarly, substantial piece of work with a hardened well of compassion at its core, and the pinnacle of his ongoing creative partnership with Elisabeth Moss. Though her performance will likely (and quite rightly) be the thing that leaves audiences reeling, the stunning experience that Perry crafts should not be denied. Oh, and the songs are pretty fucking great too.

Grade: A

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Reader Comments (3)

I'm not super keen on Elisabeth Moss (maybe I'm projecting my distaste for The Handmaid's Tale onto her) but that poster is amazing. FYC 2019 Film Bitch Awards.

April 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJF

Beautiful review, Chris. You explain wonderfully how well-constructed the film is.

That said, I hated the movie! I just couldn’t get past how off-putting Becky Something was. I appreciate why she’s that way, how the film handles her arc, and thought Elisabeth Moss proves why she’s one of the best actresses working today. But as good as the movie about her is, I just don’t want to spend time with Becky Something. I’m left wondering if it’s the one major failing of the movie that I don’t have more sympathy for her.

April 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

I'm interested in anything that echoes 90's era Courtney Love, but I thought Queen of Earth was atrocious, so I'm skeptical of this one.

April 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJJM

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