Entertainment » Movies

Her Smell

by Charles Nash
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Apr 12, 2019
'Her Smell'
'Her Smell'  

During the opening moments of Alex Ross Perry's new film "Her Smell," a trio of girl power rockers are backstage at the end of a show, waiting to return for an encore. The frontwoman, Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss), takes drags from a cigarette as she rocks back and forth in place, muttering to herself, "I always flirt with death." It's the opening line of the song, "Another Girl, Another Planet" by The Only Ones, which the band proceeds to perform within a rapturous sold-out venue; worshipping fans uniformly chant Becky's name as she graces the stage with godlike stature. However, as those lyrics explicitly foreshadow, Becky's psychological state is one of utmost fragility, and despite this brief, ecstatic glimpse of superstardom she's on an increasingly tumultuous path to self-destruction.

As one could assume from its odiferous title alone, "Her Smell" is an unflinching portrait of addiction and mental illness that's anything but pleasant. Much like the protagonists in Perry's previous work, Becky is a cruel, egotistical artist who wields words like daggers, drawing blood from anyone who threatens to expose the parasitic nature of her own self-loathing. Viewers themselves may feel like the people rotating within Becky's orbit: Trapped in an endurance test of such grueling toxicity that one can only stomach so much before feeling an irrepressible urge to walk away entirely. Yet, much like the John Cassavetes films it pays tribute to ("A Woman Under the Influence" and "Opening Night" in particular), this dark foray into the human psyche is as powerfully rewarding as it is difficult to watch.

Structurally, the film consists of five extended set-pieces, primarily set backstage and centered around Becky's narcissistic outbursts threatening to unbalance the already tenuous collaboration with her punk band, Something She. The bassist, Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) initially enables Becky's worst tendencies because she, too, is strung out on drugs. On the opposite end of the spectrum is their much more sober drummer, Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin), who's at her breaking point. ("Twice Becky fired me from this tour and forgot about it the next day"). Other supporting players include their increasingly impatient manager, Howard (Eric Stoltz), Becky's appropriately distressed mother, Ania (Virginia Madsen), and Becky's ex, Danny (Dan Stevens), who begrudgingly has to remind her of their baby daughter while remaining appalled at her excessive substance abuse.

Each act has its own particular arc, and Perry's writing is sharp as ever, but so much of this story's claustrophobic power lies in the technical craftsmanship that places us in Becky's deteriorating mindset. Sean Price Williams' woozy, handheld cinematography is dizzying in how it mirrors our protagonist's manic energy; images shift in and out of focus through extensive tracking shots, as if the cameraman himself has had one too many beers. Composer Keegan DeWitt also incorporates waves of deep, pulsating throbs over the film's ambient score that feel like internalized beats echoing directly out of someone's chest. Filtered through Robert Greene's astute, effectively itchy editing, every sensory component entwines into an amplified anxiety attack.

The performances are uniformly excellent, with Moss' ferocious portrayal of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown scorching the screen with electrifying intensity. She was pushed to the brink of insanity in her previous collaboration with Perry, "Queen of Earth," which pays homage to psychological thrillers of the 1970s, but the roots of Becky's festering wounds are explored with far more nuance here, and Moss manages to pull off the tricky balancing act of masking her rock star's aching vulnerability through typically abhorrent behavior. The other stand-out is Deyn, who, after a breakout turn in Terence Davies' "Sunset Song," proves she is an actress of exceptional range, particularly in the latter half of the film when she and Moss share a tender moment in coming to terms with their personal demons.

At a certain point, "Her Smell" takes a pivotal turn, and the aesthetically heightened chaos completely dials down. The camera stops moving, the static hum disappears, and the characters are revealed in a different light as they begin to move in new directions. The climactic emotional high on which the film concludes might come as a stretch for some, but it not only makes the turmoil that proceeds it all the more vital, it transforms what initially could come off as a voyeuristic display of ugliness into a deeply moving meditation on the possibility of redemption.

Perhaps the most haunting moment of all consists of a simple close-up of Moss as she strums on her guitar, singing the phrase, "I don't wanna quit, I just want to be in control of it." It's a very direct line, but as someone who also struggles with depression, it beautifully encapsulates how it feels to wrestle with mental illness on a daily basis and to see it portrayed on screen with such raw authenticity is something that's all too rare these days. Perry has garnered a reputation for being a deeply cynical filmmaker, and "Her Smell" is as acidic as anything he's ever produced, but perhaps the most shocking thing about it is that he subverts any preconceived, misanthropic worldviews to ultimately indulge in pure, unabashed empathy. And it rocks.

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