A self-destructive punk rocker struggles with sobriety while trying to recapture the creative inspiration that led her band to success.
Director: Alex Ross Perry
Writer: Alex Ross Perry
Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Cara Delevingne, Dan Stevens
Since “Her Smell” is written and directed by Alex Ross Perry, I’m obligated to begin my very positive review with a few caveats: 1.) Its abrasive style and caustic dialogue, part and parcel with Perry’s filmography, will not appeal to everyone; 2.) The film’s first hour, which features plenty of shrill, obnoxious bad behavior, will test the patience of many, as it did plenty of the audience who attended my Press & Industry screening Monday afternoon; 3.) Even if you’re familiar with Perry’s work, it’s possible that watching rock star assholery propelled by severe substance abuse might not be your bag.
With that said, “Her Smell” bowled me over in a completely unexpected way. Though I’ve seen Perry’s entire filmography save for his 2009 debut “Impolex,” I’m not exactly the biggest fan of his work. Most of his films have left me cold or merely curious, with the notable exception of “Listen Up Philip,” which still feels like a potent exploration of a certain strain of male pathology. But “Her Smell” features Perry in a different mode than before, submerging his audience into the noxious psychology of his main subject Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss, her best non-“Mad Men” performance by an enormous margin), riot grrrl rock frontwoman of the band Something She, as she falls hard from grace, before bringing them up for air to witness her redemption. Rest assured, there’s plenty of casual cruelty and inflicted pain befitting his style, but there’s also a gentle kindness that he hasn’t exhibited before. “Her Smell” not only illustrates Becky’s sickness but radiates with sympathy for her condition and hope for her recovery.
Perry’s film is split into five acts, broken up by home video footage of Something She at work. The first three feature Becky as she spirals into addled mania, aided by booze, drugs, and a fraud of a shaman that only feeds her paranoia. Her bandmates (Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin, both very funny) are through with her self-destructive behavior and poor musicianship, while her ex-husband Danny (Dan Stevens) merely wants her to take some responsibility for their child. Something She’s manager Howard (Eric Stoltz) desperately tries to keep everyone happy and everything on schedule to no avail. Becky is headed for a deep, deep bottom and no one can stop her until she finally hits it.
Rest assured, these three acts, which constitute the first hour, could potentially grate on those who are unprepared to watch a turned-up-to-11 emotional hurricane. It helps that a lot of it is funny, both the behavior witnessed from afar and the dialogue, which has a song-like rhythm. Plus, unlike Perry’s other films, in which his characters’ cruelty feel like an ingrained, sober personality trait, here it’s definitely the product of addiction. It’s difficult to make much of a strong moral judgment on people who are acting on behalf of their disease, even when it’s irritating at best and violent at worst.
Perry’s filmic style gets its best workout in “Her Smell,” with his frequent use of extreme close-ups employed to great effect, capturing the pain and excitement of artists living on the very edge of sanity. “Her Smell” is a true rock ‘n’ roll film, and it understands that selfish, destructive behavior is not only a part of the persona, but also a part of the fun. Perry structures the film’s acts like suites, containing different movements that function in various emotional registers in order to demonstrate how and why Becky is exciting and dangerous. She’s a magnetic presence until she becomes a problem for anyone within five feet of her.
The film’s last two acts shouldn’t be described in detail, but suffice it to say they feature Perry working in a softer, more understanding mode, and the results are quite moving. I’m a sucker for redemption narratives, and watching Becky do the work to crawl out of the gutter despite no guarantee of success, let alone fame, really struck a chord with me. All of the music featured in “Her Smell” is fantastic, covers and originals alike, but the film’s final musical sequence had me in tears because it really does feel like a hard won victory after a long journey through hell. This isn’t an easy film, but if you’re on its wavelength, it contains numerous, immeasurable pleasures.
– Vikram Murthi, RogerEbert.com