Two very different songs bookend the narrative of Her Smell. An energetic cover of The Only Ones’ springy guitar rock anthem Another Girl, Another Planet opens proceedings, poured out of the honeyed throat of Becky Something.
Becky is the lead singer of fictional girl-rock band Something She, played by a combustible Elisabeth Moss with total devotion. A quiet, singular rendition of Bryan Adams’ sentimental Heaven arrives close to the conclusion. Maybe offering some kind of absolution for its newly sober protagonist.
The title alone will elicit everything from raised eyebrows to bad jokes. But that’s nothing compared to what those who take the plunge into the film. Itself will say about this excruciatingly self-indulgent tale of a punk rock singer. Whose career hits its expiration point. Unlike anything the inconsistent but normally literate and precise Alex Ross Perry has done to date. The New York auteur’s sixth feature is truly a painful sit for the first 80 minutes, after which a measure of redemption arrives. But it’s too little far too late.
Alex Ross Perry creates a riotous, punishing portrait of a girl-rock band in freefall, with Moss as a Courtney Love-alike star and substance addict.
Becky spends most of the film flailing and shouting, smeared in sparkly makeup and hovering around a hired shaman. Who causes her to spout inane mystical beliefs. She has absolved herself of responsibility for her infant daughter and bereft ex-husband. Her bandmates (Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin) watch on helplessly as she grows increasingly manic and destructive. The majority of the film’s running time is given over to watching Becky’s backstage histrionics. That with the camera rocketing around the dank backrooms of beer-soaked punk venues and recording studios.
Becky’s taste for the occult and her increasing paranoia are girded by an ominous, claustrophobic soundtrack, pelting the audience with a sense of overwhelming psych-horror. Becky’s tendency for abject cruelty toward the people around her heightens this sense of danger. The fact that Moss manages to rattle off some of the verbose dialogue in play is another testament to her talents as an actress.
The supporting cast provide some counter-weight to Moss’ madness, particularly Deyn as bandmate Marielle Hell. Perry has been canny to cast former it-girl models such as Deyn and Cara Delevingne. That suggesting the buried glamour of musical trends gone by. But Deyn in particular is also a fine actress, casting a glassy eye on the events around her. She snorting cocaine at every opportunity and nonetheless remaining the best of a bad bunch when it comes to mental stability.
Later in Her Smell, a telling transition comes: the throbbing music eases off and Becky presents as ‘clean’.
Moving forward a few years, she has shaken her addictions and most of the foibles that came with them. She still believes in witchy visions and dark magic. But the wildly smeared makeup and whirling dervish energy have gone. Her face, her home, her voice – all are purified. When her daughter asks her to play a song, her mawkish choice of Bryan Adams – performed with a stillness and simplicity. That is deeply touching – also seems like a purification, of sorts. The punk has been siphoned out of her system, or at least until she’s invited for one final reunion show.
There are perhaps some questions to be asked about Perry’s dedication to depicting Moss in some extreme and degraded emotional states. That taken together with his exercise in female hysteria, Queen of Earth. But what really elevates the film’s darkness is its propensity to find light, redemption and communal love in the destructive throes of the music scene. For a smart-alecky director, Perry deploys a rather genuine sense of love and uplift in the final act. And in his evocation of a moment and an atmosphere, Her Smell feels devastatingly accurate.
If ever there was a riot grrrl, she has to live up to the mayhem of bandleader Becky Something in Alex Ross Perry’s HER SMELL.
Three times we see her in preparation for a gig: the minutes before the step onto the stage, surrounded by band members, friends and family, and management (not always easy to distinguish from friends and family, and, increasingly, from foes and family). Becky is a mess.
She was once an idol, and her band “Something She” apparently had its moment in popular culture. But even in the counter culture there are obligations, responsibilities, and contracts. Becky did not live up to neither. The first two parts of HER SMELL lead into the heart of darkness, the third part leads into a typical Alex Ross Perry setting (potentially bucolic) and asks questions about a comeback from hell.
In several ways HER SMELL is a combination of tours de force: Elisabeth Moss, who also coproduced the movie, makes the brinks of self-destruction seem as wide as Becky’s permanent high is deep; and with the help of DP Sean Price Williams’s fluid work and an eery soundscape like straight from Becky’s inner turmoil Alex Ross Perrymakes for a strong movie about the nightmares at the core of pop idolism. (Bert Rebhandl)
Rating: R (for language throughout and some drug use)
Directed By: Alex Ross Perry
Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Cara Delevingne, Dan Stevens
Written By: Alex Ross Perry
In Theaters: Apr 12, 2019 Limited
Runtime: 134 minutes
Studio: Gunpowder & Sky
CRITIC REVIEWS FOR HER SMELL
There’s a claustrophobic, almost airless feeling to this — it’s almost suffocating, but it’s always compelling.
Stretched over 135 minutes and overloaded with shout-to-the-rafters confrontations, Her Smell has too much talking and squawking, and not enough rocking and rolling.
Moss is endlessly fascinating, basking in the liberating comfort of surrendered glamour. She inhabits every cranny and crevice of the character’s despairing, terrified, burnt-out, blasted self.
You can quibble with this movie’s title, but it gives redemption stories a good name.