Her Smell (2019)

There are few narrative templates as a familiar to American audiences as the rockstar addiction story, in which booze & illicit chemicals tear down celebrity gods from powerful highs to pitiful rock-bottoms. Hell, in the last year alone we’ve already seen this exact story play out in Vox Lux, Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Dirt, and yet another A Star is Born remake in a longstanding, haggard tradition. On a plot outline level, Her Smell makes no attempt to jazz up the melody of this narrative template. It’s well aware that this is a story we’ve seen too many times before, both in the tabloids and on the big screen. If anything, everyone in the film seems well past exasperated & fed up with watching the tired rock star addiction cliché play out spectacularly around them; they’re just helpless to stop it. As faithful to & disdainful of that cliché as the film appears to be, though, it still manages to feel like a fresh, unholy terror through the virtues of its execution, which does its best to rattle the audience to the point where we’re numb, drained, and begging for release.

A large part of what distinguishes Her Smell in this crowded field is the specificity of its setting. These tortured artist addiction narratives are typically reserved for machismo-driven cock rockers like Jim Morrison, Led Zeppelin, and whatever Americana archetype Bradley Coopers was aiming for in last year’s Oscar run. By contrast, this film is a pastiche of the rock ’n roll excess stories that seeped out of the femme 90s punk bands of the riot grrrl & grunge era. The most obvious 1:1 comparison for its fictional rock ‘n roller Becky Something would be Courtney Love on her worst behavior, but the film pulls from plenty other bands’ onstage personae & backstage drama for inspiration: The Breeders, Throwing Muses, L7 , Babes in Toyland, etc., etc., etc. We see the fictional band Something She at the height of their 90s heyday only in brief interstitials of backstage videocorder footage between much lengthier, more contemporary scenes of their post-fame bickering. It’s a hyper-specific yet undeniably iconic music scene that we rarely get to see depicted in feature films, which usually do little to challenge rock ‘n roll’s outdated reputation as a boys’ club. If we’re going to watch a familiar story of drugs wrecking a rock star’s life & career play out yet again, we might as well use it as an opportunity to see something that’s a much rarer treat in filmmaking of any era: women behaving badly.

Besides the specificity of the setting, Her Smell is also elevated above its potential genre tedium by the provocateur sensibilities of its director, Alex Ross Perry. Perry brings his usual thirst for pitch-black despair & total sensory overload to this Queen of Earth follow-up, content to violently shake his audience by the shoulders for as long as anyone could possible stand it. The major evolution to his usual mode here is a newfound sense of patience. Her Smell is well over two hours long. It’s structured like a stage play, with act-length scenes stretching on for torturous eternities as its addict antagonist torments everyone unfortunate enough to be lured into her orbit. Perry at least has the decency to release some steam from the pressure cooker for a rare moment of calm halfway through the runtime that effectively serves as an intermission, but for the most part he offers very little relief from the anxiety & hurt addiction wreaks on this once vibrant, now decaying music scene. His camera offers a dizzying, unflinching tour through the backstage labyrinth hellscapes behind the concerts that justify this vile behavior, with muffled far-off crowds screaming for more like the demons of Hell. That thunderous applause mixes with subtly unnerving synth flourishes to continually disorient viewers as we’re forced to endure nightmare drug parties long after the good vibes have soured. It’s exhausting, but impressively effective.

All this preamble is really just burying the lede of what truly makes Her Smell a must-see spectacle: Elizabeth Moss. Recalling the maddening whirlwind performances of legendary actors before her like Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence or Faye Dunaway in Puzzle of a Downfall Child, Moss plays the tragic rock ‘n roller Betty Something more as a rabid animal or a natural disaster than a human woman. Usually these madwoman breakdown dramas are sympathetic portraits of someone who’s cracked under the pressures of mental illness & impossible Patriarchal ideals. Here, Moss is simply allowed to be total, unforgivable nightmare – bursting into rooms backstage like a flood that wipes out all her friends, family, and colleagues along with her. She curses professional rivals with mysterious black-magic hexes, plays with her small child like a dog temporarily excited by a new chew toy, and feeds off the adoration of her audience as an enabling signifier that she can do no wrong. We never see Moss ingest drugs onscreen, but you can read each speck of the junk on her dazed, ghoulish face. It’s an intensely physical performance that expresses all the subtlety & nuance necessary to make this somewhat generic story specific to her character, so that all Perry has to do (besides write the damn thing) is stay out of her of way and allow it to play out in its full, rabid spectacle. It’s a mesmerizing feat of a performance from one of our greatest living actors.

The final achievement that makes Her Smell an exceptional specimen of its ilk is in the quiet release of its final moments, something I wouldn’t dare spell out here even if I thought it was possible. After two full hours of being terrorized by Elizabeth Moss’s feral showboating, everyone involved is exhausted on a molecular level, allowing for a rare moment of quiet grace I can’t recall ever seeing before in this Tragic Rock ‘n Roll Addict genre. I was genuinely, emotionally moved by the final lines of Her Smell, which was something I hadn’t expected given the familiarity of this thematic material. It shames me to admit that I had much stronger feelings overall for the superficially similar swing-for-the-fences mess of Vox Lux last year. Still, it’s undeniable that Moss & Perry broke through to something truly resonant & powerful by the time this film reaches it’s closing moments of denouement – whether through the specificity of character & setting, the willingness to dwell in intense discomfort, or the perversely cathartic pleasure of watching Women Behaving Badly.

-Brandon Ledet

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