Her SmellReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/18/19 16:40:02
The year is still relatively young, I suppose, but is hard to think that there will be a more discomfiting cinematic experience this year that “Her Smell,” writer-director Alex Ross Perry’s brutally visceral drama that introduces viewers to a character that most viewers will write off as a spectacularly vain and self-absorbed monster after only a few minutes and then unsparingly observes her in unsparing detail as she goes completely off the rails thanks to a toxic combination of drugs, ego and neediness and then as she struggles to come to terms with everything that she lost along the way. For many viewers, it will all simply be too much—and at 135 minutes, it may strike others as too much of too much—but for those who are able to endure it all, his portrait of a toxic and self-destructive personality crisis writ large is a strangely compelling affair that is anchored by one of the most hellaciously go-for-broke performances that you will likely encounter on the big screen anytime soon.The film starts off on a reasonably exuberant note as the all-female punk trio Something She, consisting of undeniably charismatic lead singer Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss) and bandmates Marielle (Agyness Deyn) and Ali (Gayle Rankin), blast through a cover of “Another Girl Another Planet” for a club filled with cheering fans. Once the scenes shifts backstage, however, it becomes clear that what might have appeared to be a moment of triumph was actually anything but. Once upon a time, Something She was a huge group that enjoyed all the trappings of rock star success—magazine covers, sold-out tours and enough money rolling in for people to cheerfully ignore or overlook the spectacularly bad behavior of Becky. That was years ago, however, and when we come in, the money is drying up, a European tour has just been cancelled and the group is reduced to playing small clubs filled with die-hard fans who seem to be there both to celebrate their rock goddess Becky and to be there in case she has another public crackup. While Marielle, Ali and the head of their record company, Howard (Eric Stoltz), are painfully aware of how close the whole house of cards is from completely collapsing, Becky hardly seems to notice that or much of anything else. Storming through the backstage area like someone at the tail end of an extended drug binge, she shrieks and hectors her bandmates, her visiting ex-husband (Dan Stevens) and rival singer Zelda (Amber Heard) while occasionally pausing to listen to the empty words of a scam mystic she has acquired along the way. If you saw Becky on the street, you would call the cops on her but because she is a star and not without talent, people are still willing to give her some slack, though not nearly as much as they did once upon a time.
Over the course of five extended scenes set roughly a year or so apart from each other (and separated by brief video flashbacks hinting at the long-ago good times before the madness set in), the film observes Becky as she continues her downward spiral until she finally hits bottom and struggles to reconnect with the things that she lost during her years of solipsism and psychosis. Following the hair-raising opening, we move on to a disastrous attempt at a recording session that finds Becky alternately noodling around in the studio and haranguing her bandmates (the ones who actually showed up on time) for their alleged unprofessionalism while Howard stresses over the very real possibility of bankruptcy. The session is interrupted by the arrival of the Akergirls (Cara Delevingne, Ashley Besnon and Dylan Gelula), an up-and-coming group who took their inspiration from Something She and who wind up serving as Becky’s backing bad when Marielle and Ali have decided that they have had enough. In the next sequence, Becky is scheduled to appear with the now-bigger Akergirls at an important show but, to put it mildly, does not approach the notion of no longer being the absolute center of attention with anything resembling grace. When we next see her, she is living in near-isolation and while she is seemingly sober and ostensibly calmer than before, she is clearly ashamed and ill at ease as she tries haltingly to reestablish bonds with friends, her ex and, most importantly, the young daughter that she hardly even knows. In the final movement, she has agreed to reunite with her old band members for an anniversary concert celebrating their label but the notion of facing the public and confronting her demons without the heedless abandon that she once demonstrated in spades leaves her both terrified and susceptible to once again succumbing to the very demons that once controlled her life.
Needless to say, “Her Smell” is not exactly a fun night at the movies, unless you are the kind of person who considered “mother!” to be the height of whimsy. Indeed, as Perry puts us into the mindset of the obviously disturbed Becky and remorselessly observes her continued descent over roughly the first two-thirds of the film, the results are so painfully wounding to watch that some overwhelmed viewers may find themselves bailing out long before she makes her tentative steps towards something that one day might develop into genuine redemption. Granted, watching a spoiled rock star throw everything away might strike some as sounding more than a bit tedious but Perry manages to find a fresh way of presenting the material. For starters, while he is careful never to let Becky completely off the hook for her misdeeds, he shows a genuine empathy for her obvious distress that keeps her from coming across completely as a monster. He also finds just the right tone for each of his sequences, from the wild intensity of the earlier sequences to the comparative calm of the later ones, while subtly suggesting the constant state of claustrophobia that is Becky’s life (there is only one brief shot in the whole thing that doesn’t take place in a small room or corridor). This is strong and smart work and it confirms Perry as one of the more interesting American independent filmmakers working today.
Driving the film along is the utterly fearless high-wire act of a central performance delivered by Elisabeth Moss as Becky. With a film along these lines, it is tempting to speculate on who might be the real-life inspiration for a character like Becky—Courtney Love is presumably the closest analogue though there are any number of troubled performers whose lives could be considered source material here. However, to suggest that Moss is just doing an impersonation does her a great disservice because her undeniably deep dive into this particular role has yielded perhaps her strongest big-screen performance to date, one in which she so fearlessly embodies the wild and reckless side of Becky that we don’t actually begin to register just how intelligently modulated her work is until we get to see her in her calmer, yet no less intense, mode. In her best scene, in which she tries to connect with her daughter by singing her the Bryan Adams cheesefest “Heaven” at the piano, she delivers the tune with a raw and wounded authenticity that would put most authentic rockers to shame and stands as a perfect example of the old Noel Coward quote “Strange how potent cheap music is.” As much as the film might seem like a one-woman show, Moss is ably backed by a strong supporting cast with the best performances turned in by Virginia Madsen as Becky’s loving but despairing mother and Deyn, who is heartbreaking as the bandmate who is constantly snorting coke but who still finds herself the one person who can still relate to Becky until the moment comes when she can no longer do it.In the grand annals of films about fictional female musical trios navigating, not always successfully, the pitfalls of stardom, “Her Smell” is bleak, angry and wounding enough to make “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains” seem like “Josie and the Pussycats” and make “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” seem almost staid and laid-back by comparison. The film, like the character at its center, is a nightmare but one that is presented in such a fascinating manner that you cannot turn away from it. It takes a lot of risks throughout, with most of them paying off beautifully along the way, and somehow manages to end on a lovely final grace note that is just about perfect. This is a film that, like a great concert, leaves you thrilled, shaken, exhilarated and still wanting more.
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