Take any concert film or musical documentary or the like: The band slated to go out is behind the stage’s curtain, or beneath the stage’s ramshackle floors, or standing before a rickety staircase, huddled together. The sound of the anxious crowd pummels the pre-show enclave, and despite how muffled it is, it threatens to drown out the proceedings. Were it not for lav mics, we’d never get to hear the prayer. They’ll thank God, or god, or Mother Nature or Something Up Above—some variation of a spiritual being that must have foresight, or a keen cosmological eye for dramatic prescience. The nerves will melt away by the time the spotlight hits them. And then they’ll walk out on stage and the throng will embrace them.
If a film were built around these moments—the prayer, the nerves, the walkout—what would happen after the crowd applauds for someone on their last legs? Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss) can put on a show, Her Smell cinematographer Sean Price Williams’ camera swooping all around like a manic bird as her band Something She plays a grubby club. In five scenes tracing harrowing ruination and a minute gesture towards recovery, Becky falls down not merely into a pit of depression—no, writer-director Alex Ross Perry (the director of Queen of Earth) wouldn’t limit it to that. Becky’s despair is augmented by mental illness and drugs and cultish magic. She’s paranoid, bug-eyed, her control issues on stage and in the recording booth meeting up with her abandonment issues, Moss wearing the streaked mascara, the splattered eyeshadow and eyeliner like a pro, like someone who’s about to go off the deep end. What would happen after the crowd applauds someone like that? Perry’s answer is not that different from most films about troubled musical artists, though it perhaps has an added sense of urgency care of Moss’s performance. Perry’s answer is a brand of breakdown that appears a little too interested in gawking at the unraveling to infuse it with palpable empathy. We will see her undoing, and she will slowly, maybe, put herself back together.
In film, it is increasingly strange to watch women on the verge of a nervous breakdown, or under the influence—or, plainly, suffering at their own hands, in the control of men or even via a broader, more abstract patriarchal notion. Perry has, in the past, been content to avoid rote pathologizing of his characters, yet Her Smell still dances around Becky’s mental illness. At times, her health is less something to be confronted and more, within the context of this indie art house aesthetic, something to be gazed at. As a psychological character study, the film treats Becky, trying to wear late ’80s/early ’90s grunge like an ill-fitting sweater, a bit like a karaoke version of Meredith Brooks’s “Bitch.” In turn, Her Smell plays like an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music, sans talking heads, but with Perry’s sensibility: his literarily inclined lines, a whooshing of verite-like movement casually going in and out of focus. But Becky’s arc is effectively the same, even if we see Becky being horrible while also being fairly masochistic in the process.
Through Perry’s rhythmic dialogue, Becky’s words revel in idiosyncrasy, but her identity seems oddly incomplete. Perry balances her babbling, feverish bouts of fury or caustic humor, and the defenses the people who orbit her (her producer, her manager, former and future bandmates, ex-husband) must mount, admirably, and Moss’s passionately unhinged, wounded performance is astonishing without feeling effortful, establishing the facsimile of a stage persona for Becky, and, more importantly to the film, Becky’s histrionics. If she goes on deranged rants after a concert, or before one, or on stage with a motley camera crew following her, Moss compensates for whatever is absent in Perry’s writing with something in her that burns alive: a flick of the tongue, a twitch in the face, a lunge. If nothing else, Alex Ross Perry gives Elisabeth Moss a chance to become animalistic in a way we’ve rarely seen her.
Her Smell feels a lot like John Cassavetes’ 1977 film Opening Night by way of Lars von Trier, Rob Zombie and a heterosexualized Ryan Murphy, in that it is about a woman reckoning with her own mortality and corporeality through a kind of possession film. That aforementioned prayer explodes into mysticism: Is Becky followed around by some Delphic leader, or is she the one following? She gradually spins out of control. It’s a double game: Arguably, Becky’s search for some sort of spiritual peace is an attempt to transcend the persona she’s kept and crafted since she was 16, but it could also take over her whole being, become another persona, an easy explanation for her devilish attitude and tendency towards tormenting the people around her. In this, you have von Trier’s watchful eye for a woman breaking down, Zombie’s sense of almost supernatural paranoia, Murphy’s obsession with how aging women deal with their changing identities and Cassavetes’ transgressive trust in his lead to let us watch a woman lose herself in order to find who she might be inside, alone, without everyone else.
The strangest thing about the film is how separate the music feels from it, in the sense that Becky and music don’t seem exactly like they have a concrete relationship with one another. Rather Becky Something and her music career present themselves as indie miserablist Mad Libs, random quirks and peculiarities rooted in Moss’s performance, but tangential to the art itself. It’s not that Moss is unbelievable as a rocker, as someone who might shred their vocal cords (Moss has a really lovely voice) as well as she might some guitar strings—it’s that, for all the time that’s spent treating the stage, the green room and the recording booth like an arena for Becky to spew emotional bile, it is Becky who doesn’t really seem like a musician, not Moss. Music is some sort of set up or backdrop or convenient way to talk about career pratfalls and public personae, and yet, despite glimpses of the past when Something She was more successful (with a cover story from Spin, for example), little of the texture in the film is used to flesh out and detail the band with certainty and assertiveness. Becky, as musician, and her music are fictional when they should be raw.
Which is ironic, because Perry seems obsessed with capturing Moss at her most vulnerable. Perry, in his past work, has fixated on that exposure of his characters, letting them hack away at each other’s emotional flesh. It can become unbearably cruel, his characters ultimately playthings, stripped down so Perry can continue to batter them. Though we do get one moment of levity: Becky post-decimation, sitting at a piano with her daughter singing Bryan Adams’ “Heaven.” Even if Her Smell offers something akin to relief by the end, a final inhalation backsage with a neon sign perched above her head, it’s hard to escape the bitterness in Perry’s potential pleasure watching Becky, incomplete, struggling with her swan song.
Director: Alex Ross Perry
Writer: Alex Ross Perry
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Amber Heard, Cara Delevigne, Ashley Benson, Dan Stevens
Release Date: Screened at the 2018 New York Film Festival