NYFF ‘18 Review: ‘Her Smell’ is a Riot in Full, Glorious Swing with Elisabeth Moss at the Helm

It reeks, it lingers. Her Smell invades, it threatens, it’s aggressive and it’s dirty, draining. It’s a riot in full swing. Yet amidst the assumed chaos, it becomes tender and honest, an exploration into addiction and the punk rock scene of the 90s, but even more so into identity. What can be repaired after not only hurting the ones we love, but ourselves in the process?

Alex Ross Perry’s five-act tale of rockstar rampage and recovery is unapologetic and unpredictable, proving to be one of my favorite and one of the most exciting films I’ve seen this year. It was borne out of Perry’s incessant need to not only explore multiple act structure (after being inspired by the three act structure of Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs and by Shakespeare), but push the envelope on his creative relationship with Elisabeth Moss. The pair had previously worked together on 2015’s Queen of Earth, similarly dark and ruptured. Her Smell raises the bar and sails clean over it.

The role of Becky Something, our enigmatic, perpetually inebriated, crass, and readily dislikable star was written completely for Moss. When she smiles, it’s more with wickedness and less with joy. We know little about her rise to the top. It is only shown in bits and pieces through the home videos played before each act, and all about her ruin.

One of the songs written for the film is previewed in the trailer for this year’s New York Film Festival. While the film is about musicians and the cast all hold their own through each original and covered song, the focus is pulled to a development of character as opposed to a showcase and development of music.

Becky bursts into the room, eyes glittering with a madness that could only be chemically charged, banging walls and preaching nonsense to a weary choir, spewing incoherent speeches about her greatness. She loves to be worshipped just as much as she loves to chew you up and spit you out. Elisabeth Moss is absolutely brilliant in one of my top performances of the year, burning bright as Becky burns out. How long will it take? How far will she go? She screams, she bites, she clings to her addiction, is flooded with delusion. She gradually loses almost everything and everyone. Her smell begins to rot, it begins to stain.

There’s a literal shimmer, light, that hangs about her and her two bandmates onstage, Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) and Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin). Together, they make up the punk, riot grrrl-esque, arena attractive, Something She. Out of the supporting cast, Deyn is the standout. She moves with an ease, a slickness, she seems to have walked right out of the grit of the punk scene onto set.

If the stage imitates heaven, then backstage is hell. Becky’s descent into darkness is threatening to pull the whole operation into the ground with her. She’s so high that she’s unable to produce any redeemable work, unable to clearly survey the damage she’s done, unable to be a mother to her daughter, the toddler that is passed from arm to familiar arm backstage as the storm rages on. The camera clings to her every move in the film’s first act, pulling away to dart and drift between nervous eyes and quiet conversations. There’s a sense of the world closing in and a tension that uneasily buzzes in the air. Keegan DeWitt’s score starts to make your heart race, your breath catch with its harsh drones and rumblings; you get the sense something is incredibly wrong. It seems to mirror Becky’s manic state as it churns in the background, rising and subsiding.

The narrative is essentially made up of five scenes. What makes Her Smell so engaging is how it refuses to shy away. We’re kept locked in, especially when like many of those we see in the room, all we want is out. However, some humor is still pulled out of the graveness at hand, often when it’s so strained all you can do is laugh (or when Becky whips out a sharp one-liner). It’s uncomfortable, it’s hard to watch someone self-destruct, especially reaching the third act. Becky is at her highest, her prolonged absence in the scene only building up to what we know is coming – her downfall, the final plunge into the deep end.

The fourth act is a shift into a quieter environment. Four years have passed. We see the aftermath, sit with Becky in the silence. Here, she is tender, the walls have broken down, even the frame is more still, shaky cam abandoned. She’s traded in her harshness for a hesitance that carries through to the last act. Becky is fading while Rebecca is slowly rising to the surface. Her Smell succeeds here, where the parallel path of addiction in A Star is Born causes the tonal and narrative shift to split the film in two. While Becky may be sober, everything feels intact — we easily settle into a new rhythm, this new person.

One of the most heartfelt scenes takes place at the piano, where she sings Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” as an ode to her estranged child. With the veil of addiction lifted and the familiarity found in her past identity, she’s afraid to face the bare bones of who she is, afraid to be vulnerable and perform, this time as herself, Rebecca.

Perry manages to keep you guessing throughout, so much so, I felt the film could have ended at a much different place than it did. The suspense picks up again, sinking into the skin. I expected an abrupt stop, something sharp to take you away just as fast as it pulled you in. As opposed to a triumphant finale, it feels more like a drawn-out indie music video, and then sustains the quietness introduced earlier. But I can’t complain too much. We’re in the come down after such a miraculous and brazen high.

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