There’s a heartbeat cadence throbbing in the background of Her Smell. Racing like a speed addict’s BPM, undulating and omnipresence, it thrums. Maybe it’s the pulsing cry of the expectant crowd. Or the muted surge of an opening act bleeding through thick subterranean walls. But it’s there, subtly informing the uneasy tension and amplifying the sense that things could go desperately wrong at any given moment. With Becky Something, disaster – in the form of a looming overdose, public implosion, or full mental break – lurks in every corner.
For the majority of Her Smell, scenes are trapped in congested concrete backstage hallways, claustrophobic and maze-like. The physically manifested layout of Becky’s hazy mind. With fans waiting hours past show time, a threadbare manager pulling his hair out, bandmates waiting for an improbable moment of calm collection, Becky Something hosts her drug-fueled freak show of the crash and burn variety over a series of maddening and increasingly uncomfortable vignettes. In Alex Ross Perry’s gonzo portrait of a punk-rocker’s success turned to a living nightmare, being a star is a horror show.
Split into five chapters, each a year or so apart, and brightened with home video footage of the optimistic early days, Her Smell is of a claustrophobic, voyeuristic quality, trapping audiences with Becky, an Elisabeth Moss so strung out she makes Jackson Maine look like a poster boy for sobriety. Her drug-addled musings terrorize any and every captive audience but her petulant grandstanding only adds to her magnetic mystique. Or at least they used to.
A cautionary tale about identity under the limelight, Her Smell is an incredibly intimate and spellbinding take on the rock biopic. The reliably fantastic Elisabeth Moss gives a marathon performance as whirling dervish Becky, playing her like a black hole whose grasp no one can escape. She needs to dry out or be committed and aghast audiences experience the pain firsthand of Becky’s losing battle with sanity vis a vis sobriety.
Perry has maintained a fascination with caustic, unlikable characters, people who usually struggle with mental illness or a dark tint of misanthropy, and Becky Something is perhaps his most toxic character yet. She oscillates between insane, hysterical, witty, cruel, poetic, prosaic, and abusive, destroying her relationships, her success, her body, and her mind. At one point, she topples over with her baby in her arms and you assume this is Becky’s low point. Not one to be underestimated, she grabs her baby and sprints away, wipes out, and ends bloodied, with a spilt weeping child. Like a planned twenty car pileup, Becky is hellbent on self-destruction and anyone around her finds themselves sucked into that vortex, unable to free themselves from her violent habits. As bandmate Mari (Agyness Deyn) puts it, “You can’t be fully acquainted with Becky Something until you want her to fuck off.”
Her Smell is the perfect title for a film this boldly off-putting. A warning for those who may find the material simply too much. Perry’s darkly tinted picture of stardom eating someone whole is something between a rock opera, character study, and oppressive horror film with overt genre references scattered throughout. “Redrum” is scratched into a green room wall, a warning of the absolute nightmarish character-driven horrors in store, and a painted shaman follows Becky around, swatting her with soaked tobacco leaves and whispering twisted omens in her ear, his presence lending an otherworldly eerie aura that further infects the pores of Becky’s spiral.
A film of near epic proportion, Her Smell is a story about death and rebirth, one that sticks your nose in the perceived glamor of rock ’n’ roll stardom and forces you to sniff. It’s a movie that imagines life beyond 27, that presupposes that the good die young but the bad can become anew. As an experience, what Perry has constructed is deeply exhausting but wholly consuming, led with incredible showmanship by an Elisabeth Moss working at the absolute top of her game. One cannot overstate how great her performance is here and it should surely be one that is marked for major award consideration come award’s season. Rounded out by a cast of supporting players that includes Cara Delevigne, Dan Stevens, Ashley Benson, Amber Heard and Eric Stoltz, the punk-rock tribute to the little people trapped behind big personas manages a powerful take on female solidarity and the power of transformation and self-forgiveness.
CONCLUSION: Elisabeth Moss gives an exhaustive show-stopping performance in Alex Ross Perry’s strenuous ’Her Smell’, a thoughtfully terrorizing depiction of soured showbiz success, one that creepily uses horror movie techniques to embolden a disquieting and headsplitting character study. Someone give this lady an Oscar.
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