Review: Her Smell

Year: 2018
Runtime: 136 Minutes
Director: Alex Ross Perry
Writer: Alex Ross Perry
Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Cara Delevingne, Dan Stevens, Agyness Deyn, Ashley Benson, Gayle Rankin, Dylan Gelula, Amber Heard, Eric Stoltz

By Simon Whitlock

The music drama, and the excess of the rockstar lifestyle, has been pretty well captured on film over the decades, so how does a filmmaker now tell a story of someone living that life without retreading old ground?

Director and writer Alex Ross Perry’s “Her Smell” doesn’t seem to have much in the way of bold new ideas on that front sadly, instead he goes for big performances and some pretty interesting narrative framing to compensate. “Her Smell” is a tale of a front-woman of a ‘90s punk three-piece at the very cusp of breaking apart, who is not only clinging on to relevance against her band’s dwindling fortunes, but is also juggling the pressures and responsibilities of real life outside of the ephemeral madness of the rockstar persona.

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“Moss’ layered performance really shines and the film gets to explore the extent of the damage done to her psyche over time.”

The front-woman in question is Becky Something, played by Elisabeth Moss, whose entire career has been predicated on her tendency to go to extremes. Her entourage includes actual shamans who carry out cleansing rituals with Becky backstage, she drinks to the point of collapsing, she turns up hours late for shows and she frequently engages in confrontations with her friends and bandmates which all too often feel like they’re set to go somewhere really rather dark. In short, she’s what so many male figures in the industry would cruelly condemn with one word: “difficult”.

The film is presented in five acts to depict the major turning points of Becky’s musical career, with flashback footage to the band’s early days appearing in between scenes. It’s an interesting device and each one is well acted by Moss and the film’s support cast, however the individual vignettes can feel somewhat disjointed and the story’s chronology can get a little muddled at times as a result.

There’s also an issue with consistency: some acts suffer from a lack of purpose – a scene set in a recording studio feels like a vital part of Becky’s downfall but the direction feels almost non-existent – and Becky, although fascinating to explore as the film progresses, is played almost too well that watching her self-destruct in the first few acts is nigh on unbearable.

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There are little in the way of narrative surprises through “Her Smell”, but what really shines through is the care and attention given to Becky and the people left in the fallout of her actions. As the film progresses and the manic exterior of Becky Something is opened up, Moss’ layered performance really shines and the film gets to explore the extent of the damage done to her psyche over time. Based on the film’s occasional flashbacks, it becomes clear that her destructive personality in the present is a product of the life she’s enjoyed since being signed as an artist. The mask is never allowed to be fully taken off though; one moment where Becky is with her daughter at a piano, she introduces the song she’s about to play as though she were talking to a crowd at a gig.

“Her Smell”’s dedication to telling a story like this with so much raw energy is truly admirable, and Moss’ performance is a true diamond in the rough.”

Some excellent turns from Gayle Rankin and Agyness Deyn as Becky’s long-suffering bandmates completely capture the heartbreak of three friends whose once bright futures as Something She are held prisoner by a two-headed monster of ego and narcotics, but whose gestures of solidarity with a clearly broken and desperate Becky prevent them from feeling like mere background players in the action.

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It’ll come as little surprise to where “Her Smell” leads for those who have seen this kind of film played out so many times before, but Perry’s decision to cut through the glamour of life as a performer by drenching the film in sweat and harsh fluorescent lighting lends an edge of unflattering authenticity to proceedings. It’s also a helpful anchor for Moss’ performance, which bounces from scene to scene with such ferocity that it almost gets away from her at times.

In the end, after the agony of watching Becky do what she does to her career and her loved ones, the film just about earns the emotional payoff it seeks. It’s not a perfect film by any stretch, but “Her Smell”’s dedication to telling a story like this with so much raw energy is truly admirable, and Moss’ performance is a true diamond in the rough.

Rating: 4 Out of 5 Stars

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