Like its lead character, Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell is a chaotic, draining mess, an emotional rollercoaster where they forgot to buckle the safety belts. Despite a few moments of affective brilliance and Perry’s bold(ish) direction, watching this was nearly unbearable for me. Its aesthetic reeks of sweat and smeared makeup, of dank basements and drug-filled vomit as it wears its grunge inspiration on its sleeve. I recognize I’m in the minority in my opinion; the film is currently at 83% on Rotten Tomatoes and many of the critics I respect had a positive response to this antithesis of A Star Is Born (more like A Star Goes Supernova).
That star is Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss), the lead singer of the pop-punk all-girl band, Something She, and her devastating spiral is shown mostly off-stage in green rooms and recording studios (there’s very little actual music in Her Smell). We as the audience are forced to observe this downfall via the camera’s lingering voyeuristic gaze; it’s as if we’ve stumbled in on a vicious family dispute and decided to stick around to watch how it plays out. The rhythms and movements of the frame (Sean William Scott is the cinematographer here) are at-once deliberate and frantic, a nervous energy both in front of and behind the camera. In the opening scenes, following another successful set at the end of a long tour, Becky’s bandmates, Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) and Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin), begin to decompress with loved ones while Becky avoids her infant daughter and estranged husband Dan (Dan Stevens), choosing instead to indulge in drugs and a bizarre pagan religious ritual, faux shaman included. When band’s record producer Howard Goodman (Eric Stolz, in a phenomenal understated performance) attempts to get Something She to be an opening act for another artist, Zelda (Amber Heard), Becky’s vitriolic and violent response puts everyone on edge. The worship of this outdated artist has shifted to other idols, prompting Becky the (False) God to go full diva mode. Similarly, in a subsequent scene in Howard’s recording studio, Becky wastes time tinkering around in a (drug-addled?) daze, taking over a recording session from the up-and-coming Akergirls (Ashley Benson, Dylan Gelula, and Cara Delevingne) while Ali quits the band and Marielle does her best to stick it out (cocaine helps in these awkward moments).
The above two scenes are painfully drawn out and uncomfortable, as are most of the moments in Her Smell. There’s little room to simply catch our breath. Breaking up these breakdowns are home-footage-style moments from Something She’s glory days, including being on the cover of SPIN and their record hitting Gold status; these generate a sort of nostalgic sadness, an elegiac montage of images like what you’d show at a memorial service. Everything else is so ostensibly dramatic as to feel unbelievable, and Perry’s script and direction lends itself to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?-meets-Aaron-Sorkin levels of raging dialogue performed with the tempo of…well…a punk song. This seems to be Ross’ modus operandi; his previous efforts, such as Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth, could also be described as Temper Tantrum Films. And while there are quieter moments in the film’s final act, including a sense of possible reconciliation for Becky and her bandmates, I would have loved it if Her Smell had ended at the 90-minute mark with a beautiful scene between Becky and her daughter featuring the Bryan Adams’ song, “Heaven.” The moment is intimate, even serene. The camera lingers, not as a voyeur but as a witness. Perhaps this burned out star isn’t a black hole after all. But then Her Smell just keeps dragging on for another 45 minutes. Like Becky, it doesn’t know when enough is enough.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7942742/