Director: Alex Ross Perry
Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Gayle Rankin, Agyness Deyn
Brady Corbet’s self-serious essay on stardom Vox Lux culminates with Natalie Portman’s Celeste powering out her greatest hits, letting all of the carnage of her personal life fall away in a dance of pop purity. Now imagine that instead of cutting to credits, a kind of 2001 transition occurs. Corbet’s film crosses dimensional plains to some mirror place, and comes out the other side as Alex Ross Perry’s hellish Her Smell.
Beginning with an encore as all-girl rock band Something She power through a so-so cover of The Only Ones’ “Another Girl, Another Planet”, we’re now in the world of Elisabeth Moss’ Becky Something; a kamikaze creative on a one-woman mission to drag everybody around her down. While the band are on stage, Perry smudges the focus, emphasising the addled purity of live music. As soon as they step off, however, the grim, dingy rules of reality assert themselves.
Becky is a lot. Conjuring memories of Courtney Love’s war stories, she’s a drug-addled tornado of erratic moods and violent outbursts. ‘Managed’ by the beleaguered Howard (Eric Stoltz), Something She are struggling hard. Becky rarely attends recording sessions, over-extends budgets and has proven so unreliable that multiple tours have been cancelled, testing the band’s fanbase. Power dynamics fluctuate within the group. Existing members walk. Becky looks to up-and-coming talent to salvage the new record, but her own unpredictability is still her greatest liability.
The opening stretch is quite something. Perry’s roving camera perfectly captures the grungy conditions back stage and draws immediate comparisons in the mind’s eye to Iñárritu’s Birdman, albeit without the posturing. There are long takes, but Perry cuts naturally. Several dynamics are exposed in this crazy aftershow comedown.
Her Smell is a leisurely film, but it still packs in more authenticity and energy than the recent crop of blander-than-bland rock biopics being trotted out by Hollywood. Bohemian Rhapsody fucking wishes it was this good. There’s an unvarnished honesty here, reflected in Moss’s blank, make-up free stares, somehow both intense and far, far away; always a brief oasis between explosions and diva theatrics.
When one band or another aren’t playing, Keegan DeWitt’s itchy score brings to mind the percolating insistence of Jon Brion’s work for Punch-Drunk Love. Many scenes of the film are just people talking (arguing more accurately and fighting occasionally), but DeWitt keeps things on edge with his thready heartbeat. At other times the soundtrack gurgles as though we’re all in the process of being digested. That bodily feeling extends to the look of the film at times. The third sequence of the film – another backstage drama – takes place in an intestinal tube of red corridors. But Her Smell is also a film of contrasts. Act four is characterised by light, stillness, and a showstopping piano rendition of Bryan Adams’ “Heaven”.
Moss is terrifying and terrific. She and Perry have a proven track record. She providing shining support in Listen Up Philip and then went all-the-way batshit in the phenomenal Polanski homage Queen of Earth. Her Smell is three-for-three. With Becky drunk on her own legacy and given free reign by those she bellows into submission, Moss brings to life a person trying hard to hold herself together and deflect her vulnerabilities. But she’s like a hemhorraging crash victim and there aren’t quite enough tourniquets to hand.
Perhaps a little on-the-nose are the handheld ‘found footage’ intervals that divide up the longer sections, giving us brief glimpses of better times. But these snapshots serve other purposes as well, placing new characters into quick context (Virginia Madsen as Becky’s mother, for instance).
Becky thrives when she is allowed to hold court and wax Shakespearean. In these moments her star power is intoxicating; you can understand how she became so big. But the world itself has gotten bigger. and she doesn’t quite fill the room anymore. Her Smell is perhaps a rawer depiction of fading power than Vox Lux but it conversely follows the trajectory of a redemption tale; eking suspense out of the question, “Can Becky make it out of this alive?” As Perry’s film reaches for the light, it feels more and more like a mirror image of Corbet’s and the stakes seem quite a lot higher this way around.
“What am I going to do, quit? Be nobody?” on-again off-again Something She band member Ali (Gayle Rankin) says, delivering up the last-ebb mandate that Becky has dangling in front of her at all times. Her Smell is a film on a precipice, and that precariousness is something thrilling. The final grace note is unexpected, but gratifying. Riot grrrl power without a hint of pandering bullshit.