“You’re a mess.”
The first 70 minutes of Her Smell are so physically draining and emotionally assaulting that the picture practically warrants a restraining order. We shouldn’t want to allow this fetid chaos into our lives, and yet the film coaxes an invite through its intoxicating verve, proudly displaying itself as an inevitable train wreck which we reasonably fear yet ultimately can’t turn our gaze away from. Her Smell is an early contender for the most divisive and demanding film I’ve seen so far this year, and because its curtain call bows out with something real and raw to say, this is one of the most rewarding as well. Nearly everything about it is utterly intoxicating.
Having just finished a set, the ladies from the punk band Something She dissolve into a labyrinth of dressing rooms and hallways, continuing to rock as hard off stage as they did in front of a hungry crowd. Bassist Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) bumps lines by herself in the bathroom and the drummer Ali can der Wolff (Gayle Rankin) plays the temporary role of babysitter for the anecdotally named lead singer Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss), holding her infant child as Becky chants along with her personal shaman. Danny (Dan Stevens) is the father, hopeful that seeing her daughter might flip Becky’s internal switch. There’s also Howard Goodman (Eric Stoltz), the aggrieved manager who’s just about had enough of all the madness. Becky always wants more though. She thirsts for attention with her craven, hungry heart, indulging in the excess of fame and drugs and booze until she has to vomit. Brief flashbacks show us happier times when magazine covers were thrilling, and Her Smell introduces us to these women at their most depleted. There’s nothing left to give.
Trying to maintain a personal relationship with Becky is like being unwillingly attached to a bungee cord; she has the power to push you off the ledge and the appeal to suck you back in for another comedown. She drives her band mates away, weasels her way into studio time reserved for Howard’s new act The Akergirls (a trio of Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson and Dylan Gelula), and eventually embarrasses herself beyond belief, maybe even out of spiritual recompense. Her Smell is, for the lack of a better word, absolutely grueling, but the tough opening pitches of this trek through a proper personal odyssey are there to test us. To stake an explicit warning sign on this cautionary tale of fame and substance abuse with the intent to still seduce us into exploring that which is off limits. And to give us a surprisingly hopeful, sincere, learned ending.
It’s dirty until it’s clean. Hard until it’s soft. Unbearable until it’s forgiving. Her Smell has a heartbeat and curates wisdom over its duration, much thanks to Alex Ross Perry’s nimble direction, his remarkable ear for believable dialogue, and the disappearing act performed by the otherworldly chameleon Elisabeth Moss. She’s absolutely mesmeric in this hexing performance, enchanting us through guitar strums and softly sung lyrics. The movie might be a marathon, and the original songs themselves too forgettable, but a few lines from a track titled “Control” speak to the vulnerability and the rehabilitating heart of the picture. “I don’t wanna quit, I just wanna be in control of it.” Becky wrestles with her addiction to drugs and booze and superstardom, struggling to ditch the pain of fleeting pleasure. Her Smell ends where it begins many years later, with its spiritual height having reached a new acme, and it’s the kind of scratch and sniff film that only gets better the deeper that you dig your nails into its cross-stitched fabric.
“How can you inflict such pain?”
Rating: 4 out of 5