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Review: ‘Her Smell’ is a postmodern masterpiece with an indelible performance by Elisabeth Moss

Elisabeth Moss burns up the screen in Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell (photo: Don Stahl)

Alex Ross Perry makes films that linger with you long after they’ve ended. Whether it be his quasi-Pynchon adaptation Impolex, the gloriously minimalistic The Color Wheel, the gorgeous Upper West Side epic Golden Exits the hilarious Listen Up Philip or the Cassavetes-inspired psychological thriller Queen of Earth, he has always been a filmmaker capable of both stark visual prowess and incredible storytelling ability. The latter two films also starred Elisabeth Moss and served to be early forerunners of what I fully expect to be one of the greatest cinematic careers for any actress. Perry somehow saw years what everyone is only realizing now, namely that Moss is one of the most gifted actresses of her generation, and her performances on both television and in film portray her as an actress of immense talents and almost limitless capacity to play any character. Perry collaborates with Moss for a third time, with Her Smell being the defining work of their creative partnership, with both individuals engaging in an almost symbiotic relationship – Perry gives Moss her finest role to date, and in turn, Moss interprets Perry’s audacious and brilliant work in a way that leaves an indelible impression, carrying this film almost entirely on the strength of her performance.

Becky Something (Moss) is the lead singer of the highly-popular punk rock band Something She, along with bassist Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) and Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin), who have shared in the successes of the band, but at the cost of being direct witnesses to Becky’s deteriorating mental state, with her own delusions intermingling with the rising fame of the band, almost going insane with the fame and fortune of being beloved by the masses. Over the course of a few years, we see Becky go from a drug-addicted rock goddess, who is abusive to her bandmates and neglectful of her daughter due to her lust for wealth and acclaim from her fans, to a bankrupt, washed-up former star who has to face her demons and atone for her past behaviour. Things are changing all around Becky – the young upstarts she helped mentor very soon become more famous than her band was in their heyday, and suddenly she becomes the supporting act to the very people who idolized her years before. Her daughter grows up, distant from her mother by no fault of anyone other than Becky, who prioritized her own selfish ambitions over those of people she should have cared more for. It isn’t long before Becky is no longer in favour, and she soon learns the only thing worse than being infamous is not being famous anymore.

Her Smell is one of the year’s most astonishing achievements. Perry crafted something that is nothing short of a postmodern masterpiece, a provocative film that tests the boundaries between genres and conventions, and aggravates form and content in its unbridled approach to telling of the rise and fall of someone whose biggest shortcoming was her carnal desire for fame and all its benefits, both physical and emotional. Her Smell is a poetic ode to punk rock, focusing on the musicians at the core, and telling their story, both personal and professional, by guiding us through a few years in the life of one of them. Combining the resonance of music with devil-may-care theatrics, Perry weaves a powerful story about addiction and fame that is extremely unsettling and often profoundly difficult but also deeply moving. Films about musicians usually do manage to be quite impactful – music is one of the universal languages, after all. Yet, how Perry uses music here to tell this story is unique – there are only a handful of musical performances peppered throughout the film, but considering how sporadic they are, their importance to the narrative is made evident. Just consider Moss’ character – it is easy to trace her development throughout the film by the songs she performs. The film starts with a chaotic but brilliant cover of The Only Ones’ “Another Girl, Another Planet” (one of the greatest songs written about addiction), showing her reckless attitude towards her vices, and then followed later in the film by a gorgeous cover of Bryan Adams’ “Heaven”, sung to her daughter to make up for lost time, and then later a haunting song called “Control”, another song about addiction that stands in sharp contrast to the more carefree song that opened the film. It all ends with a cathartic performance at a tribute concert that finally sees Becky Something and her band reach the place they want to be, perhaps not in terms of their careers, but rather in spirit.

There is a certain intangible quality to Her Smell that makes it such a memorable film. Perhaps the defining element of this film is its difficulty – Perry has made an extremely intimidating film, one that is quite long (clocking in at just under two-and-a-half hours), inundated with complexities and filled with impenetrable subject matter that makes for tough but ultimately rewarding viewing, because it forces the audience to challenge themselves by venturing off into the disconcerting world of Becky Something and her many delusions of grandeur. Her Smell is a deeply psychological film, which seems to be a defining trait of Perry’s career as a writer and a director, because whether working in the realm of sardonic comedy, melancholy drama or borderline horror, his main concern is not only to tell a story, but also to penetrate the mind of his characters, exploring their inner psyches and giving the audience unfettered access to their inner machinations. In focusing on one character, Becky or the titular “Her”, we are thrown into her world, in media res of her peak, with very little exposition, rather having her past and that of the band told through brief home movie footage and discussions in the present. The narrative that flows through Her Smell is one that is highly subversive and almost the antithesis of most films about musicians – it is triumphant and celebratory, nor is it inspiring. Rather, the approach taken in telling this story is through Bergmanesque tension and Kubrick-level detail, as we see our protagonist unravelling before our eyes. It is dark, cold and extremely clinical, and makes the viewer uncomfortable to the point where we reconsider why we even considered watching this film. Yet, despite its difficulty, we just can’t look away – something about Her Smell compels us to carry on watching, to brave the unnavigable wilderness of Becky Something’s psychological state, and watch as Perry presents us with a demanding but poetic tale of a woman in an ongoing crisis she herself is responsible for perpetuating based on her own desires.

In looking at Her Smell, it is unfathomable to consider this film as being nearly as good had it not been for Moss’ exceptional performance. In both previous collaborations with Perry, Moss played intelligent but ordinary women who were the victim of the ill-intentions or selfish ambitions of others. She was always the victim, never the cause, and the genial but steadfast persona she has exhibited throughout her career has made her a remarkably likeable actress. Her Smell sees Moss give a performance unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, and she may have just made a career-defining move with her portrayal of Becky Something. It is a beautifully complex, one that may appear one-dimensional at the start (the idea of a troubled rock star struggling with their addiction and alienating those around them is hardly a groundbreaking concept), but we soon discover there is so much more to this performance. Underneath her ferocious, unhinged performance lies a gentle fragility, one that demonstrates Becky’s overt savagery displayed in both her professional and personal relationships is not the result of arrogance, but the exact opposite, being built entirely on insecurities and anxieties. Throughout the duration of Her Smell, Moss oscillates between vicious, excessive and destructive, to sensitive, reserved, introspective and filled with regrets. Regardless of the situation, or what the character is doing, Moss’ performance never wavers from being extremely genuine and profoundly truthful its in dynamic might. I would be dishonest if I said Moss doesn’t give one of my favourite performances of the year, and if there was any indication that her career is only going to keep growing, and that her talents are firmly established, her portrayal of Becky Something is it.

The ensemble cast of Her Smell basically exists just to revolve around Moss and her performance, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t brilliant in their own way. The best performance in the film aside from Moss comes on behalf of Agyness Deyn, whose Marielle Hell is the heart and soul of the film, a great antidote to Becky’s unhinged personality. Appearing in the film mainly as a rational figure that grounds our troubled anti-hero and forces her to realize her mistakes, Marielle is a powerful figure that is brought to life exceptionally well by Deyn. Much like Becky, Marielle goes through a considerable metamorphosis, and there is something about the third-act interaction between the two women, reuniting years after their tense separation and the breakdown of the band, that is so beautifully poetic. Gayle Rankin is establishing herself as an actress capable of great eccentricity, with her performance in GLOW and now here allowing her the chance to play unique and idiosyncratic characters. She might not have the pivotal nature of other characters, but Rankin is excellent as the put-upon drummer who has to endure the frequent instability of her bandmate, and as the film progresses, we see how Ali falls apart as well, but rather than being the result of internal destruction, it is rather the spiritual annihilation caused by the negativity of those around her. She may be the only purely positive character in the whole film, which makes her struggles all the more upsetting. Smaller but pivotal performances by Dan Stevens, Cara Delevingne, Virginia Madsen and Eric Stoltz punctuate this film and aid in becoming a wonderful piece of contemporary filmmaking.

Ultimately, the appeal of Her Smell comes in how, despite the grandiosity of the story and the ambition of the message it tries to convey, it has a remarkably simple but extremely effective execution. The structure of the film consists of five extensive scenes, all set within real time, as we watch the storyline unfold and the drama transpires through the carefully-constructed staging of these situations. In this way, Her Smell takes the appearance of a theatrical production, perhaps a punk-rock Shakespearean tragedy, with compartmentalized storylines and self-contained segments that all work together to weave a tapestry of one woman’s rise, downfall and resurrection and those who were there to witness it. The structure of this film contributes to its central tension – where most films would logically cut or skip to the next moment, Perry lingers slightly too long, creating a sense of unease and discomfort that greatly benefits this film and allows it to make an indelible impression. Her Smell is a story designed to appear like a play in numerous ways, and some of the dialogue feels intentionally stilted and used in such a way to evoke great theatrical confrontations. Perry is no stranger to this kind of intimacy, as all of his films feature the same character-driven simplicity, whereby the external factors are inconsequential to the might of the actors and their performances. With Her Smell, Perry proves himself to not only a tremendous writer, but also a great director of actors, and his approach in this film solidifies him as one of the most exciting independent filmmakers working today.

Her Smell is a film that takes some getting used to – and there are countless moments of discomfort scattered generously throughout this film. Her Smell was never going to be an easy watch, and it certainly does manage to live up to its aesthetic – on one hand, it is hideous, with the smell of alcohol-soaked sofas and second-hand pot smoke pervading throughout the film like a punk rock John Waters film. On the other hand, it is a complex and intricate character study of a woman who flirts with fame and gets carried away by it, to the point where he life falls apart in front of her. Alex Ross Perry has never been one to step away from telling a compelling story, and while Her Smell is his most major film yet, both in terms of length and of the scope of the story, it features the same meticulous and detail-oriented approach he has displayed consistently throughout his filmmaking career. Her Smell is undoubtedly one of the year’s most fascinating films – and it certainly is memorable enough to warrant a place at the top of the year’s most extraordinary achievements. Kudos are in order to everyone involved, especially director Perry, and the cast, led by a volcanic Elisabeth Moss giving the performance of the year, and perhaps the very best of her career. Considering this is just the start for what is sure to be one of contemporary cinema’s most fascinating careers, I can’t wait to see what she (and everyone else) does next. If Her Smell is anything to go by, two things are sure: we should expect the unexpected, and we should predict nothing short of brilliant, audacious and idiosyncratic cinema.

Her Smell is currently in limited release from Gunpowder & Sky and available VOD.

About Matthew Jenner

Matthew Joseph Jenner is an avid part-time writer and full-time film obsessed millennial who has been following awards shows since he was in elementary school, waking up at ungodly hours of the morning to watch the live broadcast of the Academy Awards, never looking back since. If it has celebrities handing out shiny trophies, you know he's watching. Other film-related interests include cult cinema, independent filmmaking and reviving the careers of long-irrelevant actors, rebranding them as Beloved Veterans™. He has been writing for his review site Movies Unchained since 2012.

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