WILD-ASS CINEMA WEEK: Alex Ross Perry’s HER SMELL
All week long, Birth.Movies.Death. is celebrating the arrival of the Safdie Bros.' Uncut Gems with a series of editorials about some of our favorite Wild-Ass movies. Some of these movies have direct connective tissue to the Safdies' previous films, some are completely unrelated except for their wildness, all are absolutely bonkers and, in our opinion, mandatory viewing. Welcome to Wild-Ass Cinema Week. Get your tickets to see Uncut Gems at the Alamo Drafthouse here.
We all know the image of the drunk or drugged rock star on the verge of tipping into oblivion. It's a man stumbling backstage with a near-empty bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand, or a smudge of cocaine under his nose. Maybe he polishes off the bottle in one long gulp before smashing it against a wall. Maybe he barges in on fans doing their own drugs; he doesn't have to ask before being invited to hoover up their powder, and, of course, to fuck them. He's dangerous, which makes him appealing.
In Her Smell, Elisabeth Moss stars as Becky Something, who fronts an alternative-radio friendly all-lady rock trio called Something She. With poetically introspective lyrics and anthemic choruses, Becky's songs are the stuff of 4AD's roster — not quite Pixies or The Breeders, but living very comfortably in the space they carved out of the post-punk landscape.
We never see Becky with a bottle or paraphernalia. The budding star is always already falling off her high. She ignites conflict and burns friendships as if these emotional fires might burn hot enough to create an updraft that will keep her out of the pit of her own addiction for a few minutes more. She's as unformed as her name, living a performance and, in the eyes of her family and bandmates, blowing it. She's dangerous, which makes her a monster. Shouldn't she be nicer? Shouldn't she be happy?
Her Smell unfolds like a stage play, with five acts that peer in on Something She before and after shows, and in the recording studio. Writer/director Alex Ross Perry writes Becky's harangues like they're the stuff of a Shakespearian witch, and follows through with scenes in which Becky tries to balance her addiction with holistic pseudo-witchcraft. (No shade there: If it works, it works.) Moss performs the dialogue with such thrashing live-wire ferocity that it seems entirely improvised. Moss called the script, which is performed with no deviation, "the hardest dialogue I've ever had to learn."
"Tempestuous" is too small a word for Moss's performance; she is seasickness coalesced into human form. When Becky snatches her baby away from a caregiver my gorge started to rise because I knew how the moment had to end. Few creative endeavors are as organized and regimented as a film set, but within that framework Perry creates the illusion that anything could happen. He directs by, apparently, engendering such trust between cast and crew that his unbroken takes and reel-long scenes become backstage chaos that shouldn't even be glimpsed, much less observed unbroken.
Her Smell is overwhelming because Moss and Perry do not keep us outside Becky's experience; we're not casual observers. This is the full-on enveloping filmmaking of Gaspar Noé, with oceanic emotional currents in place of Noé's camera tricks and overt formal provocation. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams uses the camera almost as a mirror of Becky's being; it's like being inside the confrontation at the end of Annihilation, when Natalie Portman's Lena encounters her mirror-self. We're tethered to her as she spins out. The burbles and sighs of Keegan DeWitt's score could be the chemical surges within Becky as she struggles to come to terms with her own identity.
Despite a reputation that formed almost immediately following the Toronto premiere of Her Smell, this is not nihilism, nor is it a simplistic story of rock-star redemption. Her Smell gazes unblinking as Becky Something strives for an identity she can only barely conceive, and which her addiction fights off with astonishing force. When that identity does emerge, we finally understand how Becky has used more than the substance of her unnamed addiction as a crutch. Ultimately, Moss and Perry destroy the entire archetype of the bad-boy rock star, which was never created with women in mind. In its place, they envision a figure who, even in her darkest moments, is as luminous as a star.