SXSW 2019: HER SMELL is Enthralling, Experiential, & Abrasive

Elisabeth Moss captivates in her latest collaboration with Alex Ross Perry

Her Smell marks the third collaboration between writer/director Alex Ross Perry (The Color Wheel) and Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men) after Queen of Earth and Listen Up Philip. Like their previous ventures, it’s intimate storytelling, but with a more sprawling approach and structure and an unruly composition that reflects the mindset of its protagonist Becky Something (Moss). She’s the founder, lead singer, and iconic figure who frontlines the punk rock group ‘Something She’, along with Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) on bass and Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin) on drums.

The film offers up five lengthy vignettes, little pressure cooker moments that define the path of these women and their career over a ten year period. Juxtaposed in-between are bursts of home video, reflecting earlier, happier times, but still with hints of the frictions that lay ahead. Each of the acts focus their attention on Becky, which is just how she likes it. Painted as something of a Courtney Love type, Becky is a hellraiser, with a wild, scorched earth attitude for those who defy her or fail to recognize her talents. From explosive green room altercations to a trainwreck of a recording session, Becky’s substance abuse, eccentricities, and general toxic nature take their toll. Playing smaller, shittier venues after her unreliability and their cancellations have dented their bookability. In her orbit are loved ones and other industry types, those she works with and those she inspires and alienates during the course of this decade. As well as Marielle and Ali, there’s Howard Goodman (Eric Stolz), the owner of her record label who is not just personally, but financially invested in her. The Akergirls, made up of Cassie (Cara Delevigne), Dottie (Dylan Gelula), and Roxie (Ashley Benson). Adoring fans inspired to follow in her footsteps, pretenders to the throne in her mind. Family too try to interject, notably an obviously concerned mother (Virginia Madsen) and ex-husband Danny (Dan Stevens), who tries to cajole Becky into taking responsibility for their daughter. It’s that relationship that becomes crucial to Becky’s arc, and her chances of surviving this industry, but each supporting actor provide essential foils to Moss throughout.

Ross Perry crafts a film that is experiential, voyeuristic; not just peering in on these moments where events and emotions boil over, but plunging into their depths. It’s a palpable experience with discordant sounds, not just from the grungy rock twangs that lay over much of the film, but the shouts, the sound of audiences stomping and clapping in anticipation, and the quiet acoustic moments adjacent to the full-throated singing. Her Smell is full of texture and life, cracking with energy; scenes don’t so much breathe as hyperventilate. A handheld camera follows Becky as she prowls backstage tilts things toward a documentary feel, solidifying the immersion in the moments, but also in the psyche of an individual in the thrall of her art and the persona she must assume to endure and create.

Elisabeth Moss is a tour de force, a whirling dervish of energy and shifting emotions, laser focused at times, off-kilter at others. Just an absolute firecracker, she’s alluring and terrifying in equal measure. Monstrous to her friends and family, magnetic to some impressionable youngsters — it’s mesmerizing watching Moss shift through these stages, be it across the various periods in her career, or the tumultuous emotional shifts that can occur in seconds as the drugs, pressure, and whispers in her ear take hold. In a way, it’s an inversion of her internalized performance on The Handmaid’s Tale, causing havoc and making her mark, demanding to be the center of attention in every room. One of the later vignettes picks up during a period of sobriety, and offers a tender moment where she is reunited with her daughter. When she asks for a song, Becky lets go of her ego and serenades her with a remarkably touching rendition of Bryan Adams’ Heaven. It’s a wonderful scene, wrought with emotion, encapsulating the different loves and conflicts within Becky, and feels like a natural ending to the film. But soon it becomes apparent there’s a hint of that fire is still there, taking the film into yet another act.

Her Smell is certainly not in a hurry to get where it’s going. It wants to immerse you in these phases, to share the exasperation her bandmates undoubtedly feel, offering little in the way of relief. Its loose style feels like the perfect fit for the chaotic arc of Something She and Becky herself. An experience to ruminate upon rather than enjoy, Her Smell is an indelible marriage of a film and its star, each proving enthralling, experiential, and abrasive in equal measure.

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