I had to watch the opening sequence of Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell twice to make sure I hadn’t imagined that the first 30-odd minutes are one long, uninterrupted take. I ended up watching the whole movie twice; that’s how easily it sucks you into its world. Turns out, I had imagined that one unbroken take. My mistaken impression about the opening is a testament to Perry’s serpentine camera movements and the brilliantly controlled chaos of the scene. I was even more surprised when I learned Perry didn’t shoot Her Smell digitally. He shot it on 35mm film, which would have made a sustained shot like the one I invented in my head that much more difficult.
My faulty memory aside, the real take away is that Perry – as well as his star and co-producer, Elisabeth Moss – has displayed virtuoso talent with this ambitious picture. His screenplay is sharp and economical. There is not a word wasted on clumsy exposition; every bit of information you need comes organically through bits of dialog. The structure of the film, which Perry says was inspired by Danny Boyle’s 2015 biopic Steve Jobs, is tightly focused and riveting.
Instead of a real-life figure, Her Smell is the story of a fictional punk band called Something She and its founding member and front woman, the iconoclastic and self-destructive Becky Something. Set in the 1990s world of Riot Grrrl punk, Becky and Something She is an amalgamation of influences as disparate as alt-rock band The Breeders and Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses, one of the biggest rock acts of the 80s and early 90s.
The film is broken up into five separate vignettes. Each is a snapshot of one day in the life of Becky and the band over the course of its decade-long existence. Each segment is book-ended with snippets of home video-style footage of happier times in the band’s history. The movie is essentially five one-act plays that document Becky’s physical, mental, and emotional decline and her attempt at getting clean and making a comeback.
This is my first experience with an Alex Ross Perry film. The writer/director is known for creating unsympathetic and unlikable characters, and Becky Something is no exception. She would wear the distinction as a badge of honor. Elisabeth Moss, who portrays Becky, has worked with Perry before on both Queen of Earth and Listen Up Philip.
Moss’ performance in Her Smell is hypnotic. I’ve long admired the actor for her creative choices. Her TV work in both Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale is outstanding. Not to diminish the work of her costars here – Eric Stoltz as Howard, Something She’s long-suffering manager; Dan Stevens as Danny, Becky’s ex-husband and father to her daughter; and Cara Delevingne as Crassie Cassie, a member of an up-and-coming band – but Moss carries every bit of Her Smell. That’s partly due to the movie’s structure. This is Becky’s story of self-destruction and attempted redemption.
Moss has the talent and (it feels like an odd word to use in this context) charisma to draw us closer to her character’s downward spiral. It’s hard to watch but impossible to look away from Becky’s sweaty, drug-induced mania in the first three segments. She’s the ultimate rock cautionary tale as she attacks her bandmates, Marielle and Ali, and drops her infant daughter when she blacks out, choking on her own vomit as she falls to the floor. Moss makes this all the more poignant as we see Becky later in the film, trying on the new persona of sobriety.
There’s real suspense as we all wonder if Becky will succumb to her inner demons in the last act.
Moss’ performance – in conjunction with Perry’s writing – becomes more touching when Becky lets those around her, and by extension, us, see her fragility. Moss shows us the insecurity lurking underneath Becky’s “fuck it” attitude. For all the character’s bluster, it’s an incredibly vulnerable performance from Moss.
Complementing Moss’ outstanding work is the world Perry and his other collaborators have built around her. Composer Keegan DeWitt saturated Her Smell with funky keyboard riffs and a thrumming bass guitar. Much of the film’s muffled score sounds like a rock show that’s happening on a stage two rooms over from the main action. It gives what we’re seeing on screen a sense of dread as we wait to see what bad turn Becky will take next.
The few flashes of brilliance from Becky that we see when she performs either with her bandmates on stage or alone in her home gives Her Smell a feeling of authenticity. The songs are all catchy and they stuck with me for days after I watched it. Becky’s vulnerability and insecurity are on display when she plays a new song for Marielle after a year-long stint off drugs and booze. She turns her back to Marielle, unable to face her in this moment of naked performance. She sings along to a guitar track that she has previously recorded, but she still holds her guitar in her hands as she sings. It’s a much-needed safety blanket. The song, written by musician Alicia Bognanno and titled Control, is beautiful and heartbreaking, as is Moss’ performance of it.
Her Smell captures a very specific time and place in rock music history. Thirty years ago, the idea of selling out was something most bands would avoid at all costs. Social media has made us all sell outs now, before we ever get a whiff of success. We’re all obsessed with going viral and monetizing our content. Our culture’s ideals about success might have changed, but not its love of excess. Alex Ross Perry and Elisabeth Moss have made a vital and frenetic ode to the dangers of excess. They also made a touching portrait of a woman under the influence and her fight to find herself.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- Her Smell is relentless in its portrait of an artist who feels the need to be high to perform. It’s claustrophobic and unsettling in the best, most effective ways.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I think the movie asks a sub-question beneath the ones about creativity and substance abuse. It’s this: are artists more willing to inflict their shit on everyone around them? I don’t think it ever answers the question. Becky is surrounded by artists who don’t behave the way she does, but the movie also makes clear that she is the most talented of them all.
- The songs we do hear Becky perform are all great, but we also get flashes of how quick-witted she is with words even when she’s on the verge of falling apart. Her acid tongue and cleverness serve her when she rips people to shreds.
- Perhaps the best line of the film, from one of Becky’s bandmates: “You can’t be fully acquainted with Becky Something until you want her to fuck off. Remember that.”
- There is a phenomenal match cut late in the film on Elisabeth Moss’ face between her deciding if she will get back on stage and a photo shoot at the height of Something She’s success.
- In addition to Control, Alicia Bognanno wrote all the other rock tunes we hear in the movie (minus a cover). They are all excellent.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- I missed this one in the theater, but it was one I really wanted to catch up with, so I watched from the comfort of my home theater. It worked out, since I was able to watch it twice and really dig into it.