A story of filth and fury and, eventually, of placidity and peace, Her Smell is Alex Ross Perry’s most chaotic and unmuffled film—until it isn’t. It chronicles the late-career decline, nadir, and attempted absolution of Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss), the mercurial frontwoman of once-popular female punk trio Something She, a band that once put out platinum records, adorned the cover of Spin, and sold out stadiums, but now plays small, squalid clubs and bars replete with writhing masses of diehards, for whom Becky remains an icon.
In the film’s opening moments, the band plays a rapturous rendition of “Another Girl Another Planet,” the camera jumping from singer to bassist to drummer to audience, the light glaring on the lens and bleeding from their pallid faces. After the set, the camera prowls the claustrophobic confines of a sordid and shiny hallway in the back of the music venue, neon-doused and serpentine, as the band and its friends bicker, banter, and commit acts, minute and major, of self-destruction in the tenebrous back rooms.
Perry and DP Sean Price Williams utilize Steadicam and handheld shots to conjure an intimate, unnerving feeling of destabilization, the inner tumult of Becky and her long-suffering consorts—bandmates Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) and Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin) and their mitigating, multi-hyphenate manager, Howard Goodman (Eric Stoltz)—manifesting in an abrasive sound design, a persistent enmeshment of disquieting noises and strings scraping on the soundtrack. The clamoring of abused instruments suffuses the film’s scenes, lending them an air of odd menace.
Perry’s characters are caustic and have messy lives, but he’s never been so visually unruly in his own style, which isn’t to say he’s being sloppy. For one, the choreography of characters entering and exiting rooms is precise, and the ever-moving compositions are, if seemingly abstracted, always slyly contemplated in their timing. For the first 20 or so minutes, Her Smell is Perry’s weirdest film, and has hues of the psychological horror about which the director has spoken fondly. It’s an uncomfortable, oneiric opening, devoid of context, tense in a way that eludes succinct explanation. You may get the feeling that an abrupt, lugubrious act of violence may happen at any moment—after all, maybe self-destruction is an act of slow, prolonged violence.
Perry has a predilection for writing garrulous, narcissistic, surly characters, and these youngish curmudgeons, as oblivious as they are navel-gazing, are prone to voluble, serpentine, sometimes awkward disquisitions that in no way sound like the words of actual humans. Perry’s acerbic badinage can be lyrical and beautiful but also cumbersome, tumbling like unchewed food out of the mouths of actors who are less adept at handling his particular prose style. Here, he’s found a way to make even his most obnoxious and unwieldy lines effective: by having it come out, in torrents, of the mouth of a mentally unhinged, drug-huffing rock star. Becky speaks in bellicose pontifications and insults and aphorisms, pious, grandiose, vitriolic diatribes, sometimes like volcanic eruptions, sometimes long-flowing lava pours of nonsense.
The first half of the film is all about Moss’s anxious, irascible performance, and the corrosive effect Becky has on those around her. Becky is afflicted with a maddening mania that vacillates with brief moments of calmness: She brays like a wounded animal, and whispers with the faintness of a moribund’s dying breath. She’s wildly unpredictable, as preposterously loquacious as someone on their fifth day of a cocaine binge. If Moss kept the volume amped up the entire time, with no variety or reprieve, the film might have been insufferable. Mercifully, the resentful reactions of Becky’s bandmates and friends and family help to ground her hysteria in a necessary reality. Flummoxed, befuddled, frightened, they stare, with unflinching eyes that have seen this for far too long, as Becky participates in strange cultish ceremonies and rambles incoherently and generally treats everyone around her like rubbish.
Moss’s stentorian performance is the tortured soul of the film, but Deyn, as the coke-bumping bassist, wearing a look of perpetual dispiritedness as she endures Becky’s indignation, is heartbreakingly reserved, with eyes glazed over from holding back tears as she watches Becky’s histrionic indignation, and gives one of the year’s great, subtle supporting turns. She acts as a supportive abutment for Moss’s crazy-train. It’s a smoldering, quietly tragic performance, that of the abused partner in an artistic relationship.
The problem is that Perry doesn’t want to sustain this weirdness, and one almost wishes he had. Her Smell becomes more “respectable” in its second half, as the calamity gives way, with a sudden cut from black, to quietude and calmness, and Becky, as well as Perry, seems to find a sort of serenity. The camera becomes steady, shots last longer, conversations are civil. It’s a jarring change in pace and tone, and certainly an aesthetic risk, but the long, lingering shots and pregnant small talk about life changes feels almost tedious compared to the raw insalubrious daring of the first half.
Perry is, at his best, a deft, trenchant artist who sees in modernity selfishness, sadness, treachery, the maladies of subcultures, a cornucopia of self-perpetuating afflictions, lies, and the liars that tell them. It’s nice to see him finally feel comfortable filming a “happy ending,” yet one can’t help, perhaps, but feel somewhat disappointed in the relative jouissance, the neatness and closure, none of which feels very much like Perry. It’s like a band ending an ambitious, sprawling album with a tepid cover of a classic song.