Her Smell | Alex Ross Perry | April 12, 2019
Her Smell – first released at NYFF – is not so much a tale of a rock star as it is of a tornado and the people whose futile job it is to manage, if never minimize, its path of destruction. Elisabeth Moss stars in her third feature with director Alex Ross Perry as Becky Something, nee Rebecca Adamczyk, frontwoman of the invented riot grrl band Something She. Told in five acts, Her Smell is a character study whose structure borrows its best beats from the days of Euripides. An addict consumed by prophecy-induced paranoia courtesy of a false soothsayer, Becky lives in the world of the mythic, in her own mind, in the minds of her acolytes, and even in those who see and live through her worst, a threshold whose boundary is constantly renegotiated as her devolution thunders forward until the fourth act.
Unfolding primarily within the cramped confines of sweaty green rooms, with camera work that is both invasive and incidental, Becky’s world is lived in and real. Right away we come to know the members of her court. At its center is Mari (Agyness Deyn), the anchoring and empathetic bassist of Something She, and Ali (Gayle Rankin), the resentfully tolerant drummer, Becky’s favorite punching bag. Becky is also visited by her mother Ania (Virginia Madsen) and ex-husband Dan (Dan Stevens) who, despite realizing the need to escape Becky’s clutches, can never quite lose his belief in her magic, and not just because they are still connected through their young daughter. Rounding out the council are her record producer, Howard (Eric Stoltz), a sympathetic enabler, and ethereal rival Zelda E Zekiel (Amber Heard), a walking St. Vincent subtweet.
And what tale of a tragic queen is complete without the young upstarts who threaten her dominion. They manifest in the form of the Aker Girls (Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson, and Dylan Gelula), a younger trio who harbinger the transition from the harsher punk sounds of 90s riot grrl to the pop-punk era of the early 2000s, where the bulk of the film is set. As Mari puts it when Becky’s manic energy and false smile seduces the group, “She’s forcing the cubs into the pride rather than killing them and eating them.”
One by one as Becky’s descent deepens, she seeks to drag down each of these people into the pit with her, but even she can’t quite decide why she’s doing it. Sometimes it feels like deliberate malice, but more often, she just could use the company. In another borrowed trick from the Greeks, Perry leaves plenty of drama offstage and in our imaginations. Most crucially, we never actually witness Becky use, though the evidence of her addiction is everywhere. When we do see a character use, it draws the messy juxtaposition of an addict who uses to maintain control versus one who uses to lose it. Contrasts such as these keep Her Smell from falling into many tropes of addiction films and offer no easy answers, something Perry has never been interested in anyway.
Eventually, those caught in the burning building that is Becky Something’s life realize their own means of escape, including Becky herself, or perhaps more accurately, Rebecca Adamczyk. The film’s fourth act is a welcome respite from the runaway train of the first three, as a reclusive and sober Becky is visited in her rural house by the only people still actively rooting for her, offering the olive branch of redemption she hopes for but knows she doesn’t deserve. Yet even here, Becky struggles to confront the truth of her awfulness, offering visions of past and future lives to explain her behavior. Luckily, the recipients are ready to accept this as the closest they’ll ever get to an apology.
When a more spiritual, humbled Becky emerges to take her stage, aware of just how narrowly she escaped the fate of tragedy’s greatest predecessors, she dons what trappings she can of her cocky persona. This time, though, it’s with a palpable astonishment that any of these people have allowed her back into their lives, despite her best efforts to ruin them. But never once does the audience truly question why they have done so. After all, she is their leader and they’ve sworn their swords never to give up on her. Not entirely.
It’s a credit to Elisabeth Moss’s staggering performance, full of wit and warmth and true charisma. The camera follows her like a sentinel throughout, never judging or giving us the opportunity to, but keeping us in the fray, exhausted but exhilarated, like great punk rock should. The effect is a film that is unflinchingly personal, deeply feminist (which both is and isn’t the point, hence why it works), and humming with empathy for even the most difficult of difficult artists.