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music scene that we rarely get to see depicted in feature films, which usually do little to challenge rock ‘n roll’s outdated reputation as a boys’ club.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

Always Shine (2016)

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I first heard of the psychological horror cheapie Always Shine when its director, Sophia Takal, mentioned in an interview on the Lady Problems podcast that she was annoyed by its constant comparisons with the Alex Ross Perry film Queen of Earth, since the two works were produced simultaneously & independently. She even suggested in the interview that Perry may have read the screenplay for her film before writing his own, lightly suggesting that their coincidental parallels might not be so coincidental after all. As I pointed out when I labeled 2014 as The Year of the Doppelgänger, it’s not at all uncommon for doppelgänger films to find their own unlikely doppelgängers in the world. In fact, it’s an eerily frequent occurrence. If you can recall back a full year, though, Queen of Earth was highly rated around here as one of our Top Films of 2015, so seeing a smaller, less celebrated work that might have influenced its production was an exciting prospect for me. Unfortunately, I can only add to Takal’s frustration by admitting that Always Shine was only interesting to me as a comparison point for Perry’s superiorly executed work, and only barely so.

Always Shine opens with two striking, tightly framed monologues that codify its two main characters, played by recognizable-from-TV-roles actors Mackenzie Davis & Caitlin FitzGerald, as a demurely feminine waif & an “unladylike” take-no-shit brute. Best friends, but professional rivals in their acting careers, the two women often find themselves competing for roles, much to the detriment of their personal relationship. The demurely feminine character is rewarded for her sheepishness by the men who control her life: lovers, casting directors, strangers, etc. The confident one is punished for her perceived unfeminine brashness and is professionally unsuccessful as a result, despite being the more talented actor. This tension comes to a head when the two friends vacation together in a remote locale in Southern California, igniting a bottled up nightmare of competitive jealousies that results in a violent confrontation & a disorienting psychological break. Any tension lurking under the surface of their friendship is made explicitly clear & insurmountably cruel, leading the two women to a breaking point that cannot be mended once it’s reached.

I like the basic structure & themes of this narrative and both Davis & FitzGerald are exceptionally well suited for their respective roles. That’s about where my appreciation for Always Shine stops. The gloriously disorienting opening, where you can’t tell where an actor’s audition ends & the real world begins, is a great window into where the film will eventually go once it gets its plot rolling. However, that style of stilted, unnatural dialogue continues throughout the film’s entire length, never allowing either of its central characters to feel like a real person, since you can feel the screenwriter’s fingerprints on every word they deliver. The characters are way too cleanly categorized, to the point where the more confident one says something to the effect of, “If I weren’t a woman . . .” in at least the first three conversations she participates in. This clean cut stageyness bleeds into the way the film’s pinnacle psychological break is depicted as well. Unlike with Queen of Earth, there’s never any question of what a character is imagining & what is “really” happening. This means that its blend of identities & indulgences in fantasy signify nothing in any given moment, since it’s always evident they’ll have no effect on the “true” plotline. Worst yet, the film is overly impatient with its own sense of mood. As soon as the opening credits it begins an assault of quick, abrasive edits that scream “Don’t worry! This is Art Horror! It’ll get weird!” between calm scenes of dialogue that deserve a less oppressive hand in how they’re delivered. In attempting dread & disorientation, the atmosphere-evoking cuts of Always Shine feel like an obnoxious joke at th the expense of artsy horror films as a genre instead of a genuine participation in that aesthetic.

I really wanted to like Always Shine. It’s got all the necessary resources to put together a memorably eerie psychological horror picture, especially in its performances & its basic themes. It just falls flat so miserably in both its screenplay & editing choices that it’s difficult to get on its side. As frustrating as it must be for Takal to continually hear, the film is too reminiscent of Queen of Earth not to draw the comparison and, in all honesty, it often plays like an awful parody version of that far superior work. That’s not the only point of comparison that makes it look like a weak substitute for the genuine thing, either. Persona, an influence both films obviously owe a lot to, smartly jumbles its psychological break in a way that cannot be easily, neatly understood the same way Always Shine‘s can. The Neon Demon does a far better job filtering feminine jealousy & competition through an unrealistic art horror lens. Felt has a much firmer handle on the way feminist themes can be discussed openly & even viciously in a broken psyche narrative while still feeling like natural, human dialogue. Creep, Joshy, The One I Love, The Invitation, and The Overnight all top this near-miss in turning California wilderness locales into emotional hellscapes of isolation & hurt feelings. None of these movies’ successes dictate that Always Shine has no right to exist in the world as its own separate work of art. They just point to the various ways the film’s promising formula falls flat in an embarrassing way, Queen of Earth especially so.

-Brandon Ledet

Queen of Earth (2015)

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I’ve read a lot of positive reviews of Alex Ross Perry’s 2014 film Listen Up Philip, but my deep and abiding loathing for Jason Schwartzman ensured that I was never tempted to see the film, despite the fact that it also starred Elisabeth Moss, an actress that I like quite a lot. Perry’s new film, Queen of Earth, has generated a great deal of buzz, and I’m happy to say that I found the film to be deserving of every accolade it’s received so far. Set at a lake house in the Hudson River Valley, the film focuses on the relationship between lifelong friends Catherine (Moss) and Virginia (Katherine Waterston), and the way that that people who love each other can cause more damage to those they care about than any outsider can, as well as the fact that, as Virginia says in one of her fantastic monologues, “You can escape other people’s cycles, but you can’t escape your own.”

The previous summer, Virginia invited Catherine to her parent’s lake house for what was supposed to be a week of healing intimacy between friends after Virginia experienced a painful event (implied to be a complicated childbirth before giving the baby up for adoption). Catherine spoiled their getaway by bringing along her codependent boyfriend, James (Kentucker Audley), with whom Virginia had a mutual open loathing. This summer, Catherine is the person suffering; as revealed in the film’s opening moments, James recently dumped her shortly after her artist father’s suicide, citing a relationship with another woman with whom he had been involved even before Catherine’s father’s “accident.” Catherine, herself an artist who worked for and idolized her father in an unhealthy way, is distraught and breaking down, and her recuperation at the lake house is impeded by the frequent presence of Rich (Patrick Fugit), Virginia’s neighbor. He and Virginia were in a long term relationship, but he ignored her attempts to let him down easily when he chose to leave for grad school and she decided to let the relationship end. Both Virginia and Catherine are emotionally ignorant and immature; Virginia was much less traumatized by her experience the previous year than Catherine is by the dissolution of the relationships that she allowed to define her. This is best exemplified in a flashback showing Virginia discussing her hospital experience but ultimately ending her monologue with declarations of how much she despises people who weigh on her emotionally and eventually cuts them out of her life. She dismisses Rich’s desires to maintain their relationship despite the distance between them as delusional, but her attempts to turn the tables on Catherine (by inviting Rich, an interloping lover, to spend time at the lake house during what is supposed to be a healing period for Catherine) are petty and heartless in a way that exceeds any reasonable amount of resentment.

Catherine, for her part, is little better. Although a great deal of the film’s conflict is found in implication, flashbacks show her to be a self-interested child of privilege with little regard for the concerns of others. Bringing James with her to the previous year’s retreat was a mistake that she fails to appreciate the gravity of and does not apologize for, even after Virginia makes her displeasure evident. Further, her reactions to the attempts that people make to connect with her, and the way she perceives all communication as meddling in her personal affairs, paint her as a bit of a brat. Although she is surrounded by people who do not seem to be significantly less privileged than she is (Virginia’s parents’ lake house is beautiful and doubtlessly expensive, and Rich’s parents own a similar, neighboring location, so it’s not as if the two are struggling), her peers perceive her as cold and unapproachable. It’s implied that her late father may have schemed to take advantage of others’ money, but nothing is ever made explicit, and, if her father was the Bernie Madoff of the Hudson River Valley, her denial of his sins and weaknesses despite being his assistant as well as his daughter would make their dislike of her more understandable. Overall, however, our sympathy lies with her, as she descends into the kind of spiraling depression that is rarely depicted onscreen, as she becomes more and more detached from social mores and human behavior, becoming more feral and inhuman with each passing day. Virginia’s failure to realize how much her vengeance is hurting her oldest and dearest friend, and her refusal to send Rich away as he becomes more confrontational and cruel, paints her in a more unsympathetic light, although we also empathize with her inability to properly conceptualize just how deep Catherine’s wounds are.

This is a deeply emotional and cinematically beautiful movie that gets to the heart of interpersonal relationships and how affection can sour due to an individual’s blindness to his or her own faults. The musical cues, increasing tension, and sense of dread are all cribbed from thrillers of the seventies, but the violence on display never transcends from emotional to physical (or does it?), and the intentionally ambiguous ending is at once both a perfect ending and a somewhat unsatisfactory one, although that does not detract from the overall quality of the picture. What’s more, it’s impossible not to note what a funny movie this can be in its smaller moments, as it doesn’t shy away from the ways that a person’s breakdown can often lead to moments of unintentional hilarity. As rare as it is to see a film that so unabashedly stares into the face of mental illness, it’s even rarer to see a film that understands and appreciates that, from the outside, the behaviors of an irrational person can be objectively humorous even if they are subjectively heartbreaking, and the film manages to tread that line in an insightful and deft way. More than just adding more scenes to Moss’s career highlight reel, this movie is the most honest portrayal of unhealthy bonds I’ve seen in as long as I can remember. It will break your heart and then make it sing, and you’ll be haunted by the images and their emotional resonance for weeks.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond