Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Dan Stevens, Agyness Deyn, Gayle Rankin, Ashley Benson, Eric Stoltz, Cara Delevigne, Amber Heard, Eka Darville, Lindsay Burdge, Virginia Madsen
Director: Alex Ross Perry
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Alex Ross Perry has been both praised and criticized for making films with irredeemable characters. From the navel-gazing leads of The Color Wheel, to the egomaniacal NYC writers of Listen Up Philip and manic/depressive central figure in Queen of Earth, the writer-director has never shied away from the messy side of human nature. However, to say he goes out of his way to write “unlikeable” characters or revels in abrasiveness is a misunderstanding of his work. In fact, Perry would probably say he’s just writing what he’s drawn to; the complicated aspects of living on this planet and being forced to deal in close proximity with others. Perry never thumbs his nose or looks down on his characters. Only presents them, flaws and all, and asks us to wrestle with their behavior.
In his latest and most ambitious project, he’s cast Elisabeth Moss (in their third collaboration following Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth) as a snarling, coked up frontwoman of a grrrl riot trio. Many will see this as Perry’s most aggravating creation yet; a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, if you will, treating herself and everyone around her like human waste. Her Smell is a film which uses the rock star narrative usually reserved for asshole men and then gives us a female behaving badly.
When we first meet Becky Something (Moss), she and her bandmates have just finished a rousing set and retired to the confines of the venue’s dingy back rooms. Working with regular cinematographer Sean Prince Williams, Perry captures a feeling of roving claustrophobia as the camera follows Becky (often in long Steadicam shots) as she stumbles, slurs, gets high, and throws out witty insults. The self-destructive nature of the behind the scenes rock star life is nothing new, but there’s something hypnotic about Perry’s approach here. The other bandmates Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) and Ali van der (Gayle Rankin) are clearly at a loss in trying to curb Becky’s erratic behavior, and their manager, Howard Goodman (Eric Stoltz) seems only concerned insofar as it impacts the bottom line. As the camera swirls and pushes in for closeups, scraping strings and detuned guitar feedback permeates the soundtrack; giving everything a disorienting atmosphere of unpredictability.
Perry throws us into this chaotic situation without context and then draws it out for as long as he can. When we do get backstory, it’s delivered via old camcorder recordings of Becky (often holding her baby) during a more sober period of her life. For the first hour or so, Her Smell is a psychological nightmare in which Moss unfurls a volcanic performance that might have been a bridge too far had she not been so adept at Perry’s loquacious dialogue. Much of the conversations here come off like smutty prose; as if Becky and her minions are rehearsing for a night of Shakespearean musical theater with the amps turned up. Moss’s uncanny physicality informs Becky’s manic energy which is always in performance mode, as we rarely see behind the curtain, even as her mother (Virginia Madsen) often shows up to reveal small cracks in the facade.
Moss will rightfully receive accolades for her work here, but as the band’s bassist, Deyn is actually the heart of the film acting as the audience surrogate. If Becky is loud and unruly, Marielle is more internal and calm. The way Deyn sits back and quietly takes in the tragedy occurring all around her is subtly devastating, and her scenes opposite Moss have an aching soulfulness missing from the rest of the film.
There’s a marked shift that occurs in the final third which is, in many respects, a bold move for Perry. As someone known for exposing the noxious undercurrents in human behavior, the move toward serenity comes as something of a shock. With Becky entering a period of sobriety at home, the camera becomes locked down, the compositions last longer, and the once anarchic tension of the film dissipates. Aesthetically, it’s a noble risk, and there are some nicely rendered moments of domesticity in this section, but it also takes the film into more predictable territory. Perhaps Perry learned a lesson from co-writing the script for studio project Christopher Robin, since the narrative here starts hitting the self-recovery beats of many rise and fall rock star stories. While this shift hinting at a “happy ending” certainly gives the film more widespread appeal, and even makes Becky’s awful behavior more understandable given the nature of her addictions, it also feels like Perry pulling back on what he does best.
Her Smell is a profoundly visceral experience confirming Perry’s gifts at balancing morbid humor with psychological horror movie theatrics. Had he burrowed even deeper into the black hole of Becky Something; exposing the 90’s alt-rock scene as a bunch of drugged-out posers pretending to not be excited about landing on the cover of Spin, and the film may have truly lingered as a companion piece to Penelope Spheeris's incisive The Decline of Western Civilization. Instead, it’s just another story of an asshole musician (albeit a woman this time) going off the rails and then coming back again for one more song.