AFI Fest 2018: Her Smell, by David Bax
It wouldn’t come as a surprise if Her Smell, Alex Ross Perry’s movie about the fall and rise of a fictional grunge/punk rock star, eventually comes to be embraced by horror fans. It’s not that it’s scary or supernatural or violent (well, maybe a little violent); it’s that its onslaught of mounting, garish excess becomes hellish in a Grand Guignol way. This is, to be clear, the furthest thing possible from a complaint. As the film’s protagonist rages and self-destructs backstage before and after performances, infernal noises bleed through the walls in undulating crescendos. Is it merely the road crew packing up and loading equipment? Is it a raging pack of demons champing at the bit to claim their damned prize? Or is it something else, something unimaginable?
Taking place over the course of an unspecified period we’ll just call “the 90s,” Her Smell tells the tale of Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss) in five acts. Each of these unfolds in real time (punctuated with smeary 4×3 video flashbacks) and is separated from the next one by anywhere from a few weeks to a few years. Most of them contain at least one song performance, making this a somewhat unlikely musical. Together, they form a bone-rattling depiction of an unleashed id and, ultimately, a exalting testament to the life-saving properties of being cared about by the people close to you, even when a good argument can be made that you don’t deserve it.
Stylistically, Her Smell is manic and frantic, with long, roving Steadicam takes and sickly, saturated neon colors. But it’s so much Moss’ movie that it feels like everything else in it is just trying to keep up with her. The actor’s go-for-broke commitment to her character’s runaway ego (and the runaway insecurities to match) will likely make Her Smell hard for some people to hang with; I’ve already seen it described as “camp.” But there’s not a single moment of dishonesty. Plus, she’s supported by a cast that includes Virginia Madsen, Amber Heard, Dan Stevens, Eric Stoltz, Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson, Dylan Gelula and, in two of the film’s strongest and most important performances, the relatively unknown Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin (the latter is one of the stars of TV’s GLOW) as Becky’s bandmates.
All of it swirls around the hurricane that is Moss. She’s an agent of chaos who works on behalf of no cause. She’s all impudent sound and fury, proud to signify nothing. It’s pretty punk rock, really.
It’s captivating but Perry rightly takes his time cluing you in to what it’s all for. Be assured that the debauchery and the tantrums and the cruelty and the irresponsibility are pointing toward something. Perry loads the movie up with Becky’s increasingly unhinged behavior until the dam breaks. Once it does and the water recedes, we see the beautiful, honest, earnest, psychologically empathetic movie that was waiting for us. Maybe all those sounds coming through the walls were the future, which claims us all anew every day. And maybe, Her Smell says, it’s up to each of us to decide if it will be a hell or a heaven.