GFF19: Her Smell

Elisabeth Moss delivers a tour-de-force performance in this unruly punk epic about a 90s riot grrrl coming apart at the seams, and intent on taking her entourage down with her

Film Review by Jamie Dunn | 04 Mar 2019
  • Her Smell
Film title: Her Smell
Director: Alex Ross Perry
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Cara Delevigne, Dan Stevens, Agyness Deyn, Gayle Rankin, Ashley Benson, Dylan Gelula, Eric Stoltz, Amber Heard, Eka Darville, Lindsay Burdge, Virginia Madsen

You wouldn’t want to be trapped in a faulty lift with characters from an Alex Ross Perry joint; truthfully, sharing a functioning one for a few floors would be a trial. But as obnoxious as the protagonists of Listen Up Philip (Jason Schwartzman and Jonathan Pryce’s conceited novelists) or Queen of Earth (Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston’s acrimonious best friends) are, they look positively charming next to Becky Something (Moss again), the lead singer of 90s riot grrrl outfit Something She and the chaotic heart of Perry’s uninhibited, ferocious new film, Her Smell.

Set over five acts spread over seven years, each preceded by a grainy home video flashback to happier times, Her Smell is an assault. When we first meet Becky and her bandmates, Mari (Agyness Deyn) and Ali (Gayle Rankin), they’re waiting in the backstage wings of a punk club, basking in the sounds of adulation from their audience before returning to the stage to deliver a white-hot cover of The Only Ones’ Another Girl, Another Planet as encore. The glow of the performance doesn’t last long. We soon realise that Something She was once accustomed to much bigger shows, and that the manic behaviour of the aggressive, sadistic, clearly medicated Becky is the chief reason for the fall from grace. Ali makes it explicit when she says to Danny (Dan Stevens), the father of Becky’s child, “she’s going to fuck this up for all of us.”

Perry syncs the image and sound to Becky. When she’s in full, apoplectic flow – like in the second act set during a disastrous recording studio session – Sean Price Williams’ camerawork and Robert Greene’s editing become more jagged and ugly the more Becky gets worked up, but will relent to more pleasant rhythms during the few moments she leaves the screen. Keegan DeWitt’s sound design, too, seems to be taking place in Becky’s fractured psyche, turning the sounds you’d expect backstage at a gig to a industrial clanging of someone coming apart at the seams. A section set while Becky is in recovery and self-imposed seclusion provides a serene moment to catch our breath.

It becomes apparent early on that this wild punk epic is about mental illness and the pain of watching a loved one unravel. Perry doesn’t make it easy for his characters (the entourage being worn-down by Becky’s illness includes Eric Stolz’s demoralised manager and Amber Heard as Becky’s former protege, current frenemy). But it’s no picnic for us either. Her Smell is a slog – intentionally so. Its experimental structure and form give us little respite, but even in the darkest moments of this emotional tornado of a film, flecks of dark humour and shimmers of humanity break through.

The chief reason to see Her Smell, though, is Moss’s tour-de-force performance, which grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. She’s so great, in fact, that she even turns a cheesy Bryan Adams anthem into a heart soaring triumph.

Her Smell had its Scottish premiere at Glasgow Film Festival