Larry Clark is in full-on zeitgeist mode with The Smell of Us, yet another entry in the filmmaker’s growingly tiresome oeuvre, built entirely on the ways desire and disgust necessarily overlap in sexual preference and social formation. At least, these themes roam freely within the director’s work, though only rarely (in, say, Bully) do Clark’s films distance themselves enough from their material in order to gesticulate meaningful expression. That’s because Clark’s understanding of significance is one faultily tied to lived experience, as if all the on-screen toe sucking, ass licking, sagging skin, and hardcore fucking were evidence enough of its chafed authenticity. In an early scene, a bum named Rockstar (played by Clark himself) pisses his pants as he wantonly pours wine all over his face. That seems to be as reflexive a gesture as Clark can muster from the film’s thinly sketched presentation of a group of young Parisian skaters moonlighting as novice hustlers, replete with Clark’s typically poseur-voyeur aesthetics.
Penned by Clark and Mathieu Landais, The Smell of Us is clearly meant to resemble Kids in its snapshot portraiture of adolescents on the edge, only this time filtered through the apertures of iPhones and webcams. Young boys sit around watching porn on their phones while their skater friends try kickflips and other freestyle moves in the background. In a nightclub, pulsating music and sweating bodies convulse in close proximity to one another, while a bearded, middle-aged man sniffs random armpits and fondles young dick. When two young protagonists named Math (Lukas Ionesco) and JP (Hugo Behar-Thinières) emerge nearly a third of the way into the film, Clark stages their decision to become rent boys as one necessarily informed by the ease of getting paid through online operations, though Clark refrains from examining these structures at any length. As such, the emphasis remains almost exclusively on their various sexual encounters, including with Rockstar, who sucks Math’s toes while gentle repeating “my little boy.” If such a scene is meant to be Clark’s recognition of his culpability in offering young bodies with little context or remove, it’s in faint suggestion only.
Yet Clark has been peddling this same sort of faux-introspection for much of his career, most notably in a film like Wassup Rockers, where the outright licentious depiction of young male flesh is meant to be redeemed by a humanism that’s concerned with youthful struggle. The Smell of Us makes a similar wager, but doubles down on its bid for immediacy through a feigned interest in digital image-making, with these skaters wielding smartphones and documenting their exploits, the footage of which Clark often substitutes for his film proper. Amateur skating clips get correlatives in pixilated teen-sex vids, with all of it set to an incessant thrash metal soundtrack that finds Clark grasping at street cred rather than arriving at it through notable forms of ingenuity. All of the shitty handheld footage rendering wayward sexual abandon incites little more than a glancing sense that Clark’s images possess meaning beyond their immediacy. Yet even as images of immediacy, Clark proffers simple, putrid grotesqueries that substitute basic social implications for dynamic political valences. When Math tells JP, “I’m only gay for the cash,” Clark fails to grant the moment pathos, much less a conviction, worthy of the performativity themes such a statement elicits.
If Spring Breakers saw Harmony Kornie transport prior themes of unbridled antisocial behaviors into a realm of neons and pop ephemera to convincingly provocative ends, The Smell of Us neglects to locate any comparable transition or progression for Clark. That includes a foul depiction of lecherous, elderly men infatuated with juvenile physiques, particularly a scene in which a talkative geezer pops a Viagra pill, assuring Math that this will enable him to perform for hours. Presumably the film’s intent is to ridicule an environment that offers adolescents few options besides selling their bodies to preying customers, but Clark’s aesthetics betray such critique through a more prominent interest in depicting such perversions sans dramatic or moralizing resolutions, which would be intriguing gestures if Clark had anything else to offer instead. Clark even squanders a bit role for Michael Pitt, who wanders on screen less than a handful of times as an unnamed musician, flashing little more than his recognizable mug for Clark’s flatlining neorealism.
Film Comment Selects runs from February 20—March 5.