Her Smell, 2019.
Written and Directed by Alex Ross Perry.
Starring Elisabeth Moss, Cara Delevingne, Dan Stevens, Agyness Deyn, Gayle Rankin, Ashley Benson, Eric Stoltz, Dylan Gelula, Virginia Madsen, Lindsay Burdge, Alexis Krauss, Eka Darville, Keith Poulson, and Amber Heard.
A self-destructive punk rocker struggles with sobriety while trying to recapture the creative inspiration that led her band to success.
It’s a tall task to create a rise and fall narrative that largely ignores the journey to fame, and if anything writer/director Alex Ross Perry (Queen of Earth, Listen Up Phillip) is telling the inverse of that story with Her Smell, just not in the way one might expect. It’s a close call, but this is the experimental filmmaker’s best work to date (and incidentally his most experimental while also containing a surprising entire chapter that feels straightforward and conventional, possibly to maximize the emotional power of the protagonist’s arc), seeing Alex Ross Perry for the third time collaborating with Elisabeth Moss. In short, he gets from her a performance so unhinged and arresting (with sections of regret and redemption that are equally affecting), the film would probably come out aggressively annoying and unwatchable without her command of such frenetic and offputting behavior.
Her Smell is the kind of film where you draw a line in the sand before beginning production; you tell everyone it’s either going to work or be a spectacularly bombastic failed attempt at art. Bringing to mind the styles of Danny Boyle and Gaspar Noe, the film begins backstage at a small concert venue where Something She (led by Elisabeth Moss’ Becky Something) performs for a dwindling but still-rabid fan base. Following the performance of a song in full (it’s worth noting that the various punk rock songs created for the movie are all catchy and easy to rock out to, and probably worth purchasing a soundtrack over), we are quickly made aware that Becky is beyond fucked up from both drugs and seemingly a narcissistic personality. She treats her bandmates Marielle and Ali (Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin respectively), ignores her husband as he’s trying to hand her divorce paperwork, but in her unchecked and abusive state of mind seems to find a moment to spend with her baby daughter.
Becky also hangs around a religious cultist named Ya-ema (Eka Darville) which is comfortably fitting as her demeanor and treatment of others is very cult of personality. Naturally, her friends eventually walk away, but not before she preys on another group of up-and-coming punk rockers (played by some notable names including Cara Delevingne and Ashley Benson) who might suspect something is off but are too starstruck and sycophantic to turn down her offer of becoming a band. They even ignore the warnings from her past bandmates, not to mention the erratic behavior of Becky attempting to make compelling music in the studio right in front of their faces. Even so, it’s hard to feel like these characters are dumb, as once again, Elisabeth Moth is a speeding semi-truck of mental instability but with just enough religious reminiscent charm to convert others to her side. Speaking of that, some of her zany lines are so organically delivered that it doesn’t even feel like she’s working from a script most of the time; it’s either calculated improv or Elisabeth Moss taking a script and royally committing to the end of the earth with every word.
Admittedly, I can only take so much chaotic real-time banter watching a self-destructive talented artist berate and inflict further emotional wounds on her friends and family (there is nothing glamorous about this look at punk rock fame, even if some of Elisabeth Moss’ random retorts to others can be so bizarre that they come across humorous), and Alex Ross Perry is aware that too much goes beyond superfluous and enters pointless territory. So with that said, between each of the five acts (the film literally feels like a play) are interludes showcasing the happier times of success. Essentially, if William Shakespeare made a rock opera it would come out something like this.
Nevertheless, there is a portion of salvation searching that would probably come across as phony and unbelievable without Elizabeth Moss simply bringing her A+ game. Without spoiling much, one scene sees Becky playing on the piano and singing not just a beautiful song, but one that perfectly encapsulates everything about where we are in this story and what the character is thinking (I’m trying my best to mention as few details as possible). Her Smell goes on for another 45 minutes, and understandably so, but it doesn’t even need to; I was moved to tears during this bit and will be hard-pressed to find scenes this year that can match its emotional power. It’s also not just about redemption, as there is a touching throughline regarding female companionship, the limits of friendship, and forgiveness.
The back half of this movie is perfect (the final chapter almost morphs into a psychological drama that is aided by the uneasy percussionist soundtrack vibes and a moody color palette), but considering the 2+ hour running time and repetitive nature of watching Becky act an asshole, it does feel around 20 minutes could be trimmed from the first half. Then again, it’s also not 20 minutes I’m necessarily mad I had to sit through; Elisabeth Moss is phenomenal and Her Smell is Alex Ross Perry’s best film yet. Every chapter brings a different style of storytelling to the table, at the center remaining a nuclear level scintillating performance from Elisabeth Moss
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com