NYFF Review: HER SMELL Dares You To Keep Watching

Chaos abounds in Alex Ross Perry’s behind-the-scenes alt-punk epic.

Make no mistake, writer/director Alex Ross Perry (The Color Wheel, Golden Exits) and Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men, The One I Love) are a collaborative duo to be cherished. In Her Smell, their third film together in the past four years, they take their concerted artistry to a level of monstrous proportion. Their previous films (Queen of Earth¸ Listen Up Philip) have been small, particular, minutely focused. And while Her Smell maintains the intimacy and close-shot containment of the previous two films in style, it is fertile with a frenzy of eclectic characters and gargantuan in scope—five lengthy acts played out over ten years.

Elisabeth Moss is Becky Something, bold, reckless leader of the platinum-selling, genre-pushing, and world-famous riot grrrl group “Something She.” Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) rocks the bass and Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin) rounds out the rambunctious trio on drums. Howard Goodman (Eric Stoltz) plays the prototypical legendary band manager, sober, composed, and constantly towing the line between business and the band’s increasingly troubled identity (think: a white-collared Brian Epstein in a hotel room making a professional phone call in the background while The Beatles light up another joint and topple over the suite’s couches, but the joint is speed and the scene isn’t light-hearted or playful).

All five acts are centered on the psychotic and drug-addled Becky, whose regard for others, baseline professionalism, attention span, and sobriety are non-existent. Two hellacious acts follow her in the dingy, cracked-wall mazes of the concert venues’ backstage innards. Another act runs amok in the wake of desperate attempts to salvage distressed and dying creativity within a recording studio. The fourth act offers the film's only respite from frantic, noisy temerity—a rehabilitation stint in a quiet country home. And the fifth returns to those furious, rumbling backstage halls you will most likely feel fervently averse to by that point.

With stunning cinematography at his disposal, Perry successfully directs the handheld camera to hone in incessantly on Becky’s face as he tracks her from room to room, character to character, intimating the internal agony that fuels her reign. Gallivanting around like a Victorian queen who owns everyone and everything in her sight, she wreaks havoc on any poor soul that breathes in her vicinity, whether a stressed ex-husband (Dan Stevens), coked-out bandmate, disappointed mother (Virginia Madsen), or rock star contemporary (Amber Heard, Cara Delevingne). Among many bizarre ways, she displays her ascending insanity through her reliance on a negative-energy-slaying shaman who lays blame for her problems toward everyone that isn’t her.

Actual stage time is sparse. Comic relief is almost entirely absent. Narrative development is slow, irritating and thick. Watching Becky is like watching a repulsive, viscous cesspool substance drain from its toxic, upside-down container at an excruciating speed. The film is not hinged on a plot so much as it is an immersive mood formed by Becky’s relentless onslaught of blunt insults, aggrandizing self-worship, and bedlam behavior. At a long 135 minutes, it is a marathon of a film. Just when you think she might awaken to even the slightest self-awareness or empathy, and thus offer you some respite, she doubles down in an abusive tantrum of cruelty.

You do not enjoy Her Smell. You endure it. At times, it feels more like a chore to watch, yet for whatever reason it’s impossible to look away. But this isn’t to the film’s detriment. Quite the opposite, it is what makes it so remarkable, so unlike anything you’ve seen. It’s as uninviting as Becky, going out of its way to maniacally tarnish your psyche as it dares you to continue staring—a seductive dare, no doubt. And that’s the unique challenge of the film, which is, in a certain sense, an experience parallel to a fright house. You go with the expectation of thrilling, gripping discomfort. Of course, this is a different brand of discomfort. It doesn’t leave you giggling afterward; rather, it leaves you in meditation, ruminating on what you witnessed.

Sweltering with confidence and gushing with feverish imagery, Her Smell is absolutely one of a kind. It is abrasive in nature and exquisite in artistic execution, Perry’s screenplay radiating brilliance. It will polarize viewers, but it seems likely that it will develop a cultish following as passionate as Something She’s uproarious off-screen admirers. You won’t find anything so provocative and energetic in 2018. It is a mammoth accomplishment and a promising sign (as if we needed one) for the future of the Perry Moss Collective. A great film is not necessarily a palatable one, after all.