Published on May 3rd, 2019 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Director Alex Ross Perry and actress Elizabeth Moss create something incredible about the female rebel psyche in their new film, the oddly titled, Her Smell.
In a recent Reddit AMA, writer/director Alex Ross Perry explained the ambiguous title of his new punk rock drama. “Only three movies ever had the word ‘smell’ in the title,” he explains. “I became obsessed with [that]. Then the title came to be as perfect for this film. Raw, nasty, feminine, unapologetic… I learned about 90s feminist zines with names like ‘Her Jazz’ and ‘Lady Parts’ and realized “Her Smell” is the zine/album that never existed.”
The movie is an collage of aesthetics and attitudes from the 90’s Riot Grrrrl scene, and “Something She”—the film’s fictitious but entirely realistic band—is an all too perfect recreation of the raw and rebellious attitudes that real bands like Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, and Hole embodied. But unlike the garish impressions of real-life bands in recent films, Her Smell is clearly conceived not just out of fandom, but also from a real fascination with the female rebel psyche. Perry is not satisfied with merely photographing a time and place; his film peeks behind the curtain in the twilight of a band’s tenure, at their most fractured and chaotic moments, and revels deeply in it.
What this raucous flick has on its mind, as it places us as flies on the paint-chipped walls of the backstage greenroom, is the bubble of vanity that the rock n’ roll paradigm unleashes. Becky Something, played by an electrifying Elizabeth Moss, is a coked up, narcissistic, manipulative bandmate, who facetiously sings riddles to herself and totes around a shaman backstage to rid her surroundings of ‘evil spirits.’ The opening scenes throw you in head-first to a sobering, real-time whirlwind of debauchery that confidently sets the tone for a beautifully exhausting character study about mental illness, ego, and artistic catharsis. Its central conceit is simple, yet brilliantly evoked throughout its run-time, intimately exploring whether Becky will overcome the punk persona that has toxically merged with her real-life or fall deeper down the rabbit whole until there is no turning back. Materialistic as it may sound, the stakes feel incredibly high.
Alex Ross Perry staunchly divides this movie into a series of intimate acts, making the film a perfect synthesis of the best aspects of playwriting and filmmaking. His decision to let settings and situations breathe is essential to the poised character development that is built. Every bit of madness, every flaw is signified visually through the suffocating cinematography and nuanced performances which I am willing to bet leaned heavily on improvisation. The film builds convincing and intimate scenarios for its cast—specifically Moss—to play in and as a result, the film becomes impossibly fascinating and all too believable. Sometimes Becky will embark on these long, arduous soliloquies, basking in the melodrama she’s creating. She loves the sound of her own voice, and that is best evoked to the audience through uncompromising and confusing ramblings. Perry—whose last film Queen of Earth also starred Moss in a similarly scenery-chewing affair—has carved out a unique style as an auteur that imposes a real-time naturalism to uncomfortable and raucous subject matter. Her Smell is his best film yet in this style, matching it to not only a unique character but also a paradoxically seductive and grimy setting that is ripe for deconstruction.
This film also understands the emotive power of music when dramatized properly. The film, at times, feels like the world’s saddest musical, though no diegesis is broken; all the music is played by the characters in believable scenarios. Instead of breaking out into song and dance, Perry finds extremely effective emotional value in musical performance, especially when the audience of adoring fans is absent. The most important moments in Becky’s arc come when she plays from the heart; at one point we inexplicably find her strumming a hauntingly melancholy tune minutes after throwing a massive tantrum. My favorite scene involves her singing a heartfelt piano ballad to her young daughter, knowing perfectly well she has failed her. Perry lingers in these moments, letting the full songs play out because he understands that they signify more than any line of dialogue ever could. We see the vulnerability, the heartache, the self-hatred in those musical moments, and they serve as the perfect antidote to the insane debauchery we are, for so much of the film, inundated with.
In the end, I think the film is about addiction. Not to drugs or alcohol or sex, but to a persona, a crutch that Becky leans on to forget about the real human buried underneath all the drugs and glitter and anarchy. And the incredible truth this movie uncovers is that, while you can recover from addiction and realize your past mistakes, that past is still apart of you and moving on is not always synonymous with “making a comeback.” Its about the fragility, but also the beauty, of will power. As a result, the insanity we are subjected throughout the film proves less sensationalistic and more philosophically poignant. As a big music fan, I continuously find it more and more difficult to idolize my favorite rockers in the same way I did as a teenager. But after seeing Her Smell, goddamn do I have a newfound respect for them, especially the ones who knew when to hang it up.