If Gaga’s Ally Maine is a star being born, Elisabeth Moss’s character in Her Smell, the Courtney Love-esque Becky Something, is a star in supernova ― something rare and powerful, sucking up all other energies that surround it before going out with a tragic bang. That, in itself, is a very punk idea, one which every rock star from Cobain to Bowie has flirted with lyrically or literally. Director Alex Ross Perry’s riot grrrl character drama merely elongates the ‘better to burn out than fade away’ energy of those songs and albums into an episodic, mascara-streaked feature film iteration.
Perry has a proven aptitude for crafting destructive, unlikeable characters who can only find solace in each other ― look to the hysterical frenemies of Queen Of Earth (2015), or The Color Wheel’s (2011) insufferable siblings. But Her Smell focuses all of its bad juju in on Becky, the glitter-smeared black hole at the centre of every recording studio session or green room brawl. Moss elevates the film’s dense dialogue, pulling off Perry’s abrupt changes in mood with aplomb ― she’s alternately childlike and queenly, lecturing her poor underlings through a veneer of ego and whatever substances are available at any given moment.
The film is separated into five chronological vignettes, mostly taking place before or after the most seminal gigs of Something She, a slightly generic Hole or The Breeders soundalike that Becky fronts with an iron fist. This structural choice brings method to the madness of the film’s long takes and overlapping, hepcat dialogue, but it also makes more obvious the repetitive nature of Perry’s storytelling. Every segment begins with Becky being too late and too high to do what’s being asked of her by the dozen people who depend on her, both emotionally and in a more literal, financial sense ― her harried ex-husband (Dan Stevens), her bandmates (Gayle Rankin and Agyness Deyn), even the Akergirls (Cara Delevigne, Ashley Benson and Dylan Gelula), the younger, hungrier girl band that’s set to usurp Something She.
The relationship between Becky and Something She is reminiscent of The Bad and The Beautiful (1952), another story about an abusive but apparently genius creative who somehow keeps roping their collaborators into just one more tortured experience for old time’s sake, the promise of greatness turning good people into enablers and bad people into monsters. More so than Kirk Douglas’s character in that film, though, Moss makes her monster a more tragic figure by exposing the necessary insecurity and crippling fear of irrelevance that often makes up the trait of a celebrity villain. Surrounded almost constantly by a wanky entourage of shamans and faith healers, Becky has one eye on her legacy at all times, at the expense of her suffering companions in the present day: she makes her long-suffering, perma-disappointed mother (Virginia Madsen) promise that at her funeral, the coffin is to ‘arrive half an hour late and on the side, written in gold letters; “sorry for the delay”.’
The entire supporting cast seems to want what’s best for Becky, at times simultaneously babysitting both her and her toddler daughter. But by the time the third segment rolls by, it’s clear that nobody but Becky herself can bring the chaos to an explosive end. For better or worse, the audience feels exactly what Becky’s put-upon posse is going through; two hours of watching someone destroy their career is bloody tiring. I guess arguably this is a point that the film is trying to make ― that loving an addict is hard work, and repetitive by nature ― but our sympathetic energies to Becky do inevitably wane, and so might our attention.
The concrete-lined, backroom feel of the film is engaging on a physical, eye-pleasing level, as is the camera’s refusal to censor its gritty characterisation. A decent portion of the film’s cast are literally supermodels, and it’s depressingly alien to see them with un-airbrushed chin and forehead acne. This raw visual approach could have benefited the film if it were also translated into other aspects, such as the original punk pop score by Alicia Bognanno, which isn’t especially memorable or distinct ― and none of the stage performances are as impactful as the three-minute take of Elisabeth Moss straining to sing Bryan Adams’ ‘Heaven’ to her daughter, the movie’s most baldly sentimental moment.
Something She’s salad days are relegated to static-tinged VHS flashbacks, depriving us of any hope that Becky can return to the easy, early days of her celebrity ― which makes the relatively optimistic ending Perry hands us feel a bit simplistic. Beyond the film’s pat moral conclusion that Becky will only find herself by being a good mother, there’s the more twisty, fascinating question of how we, the viewer, are complicit in her downward spiral. Don’t we, too, want to see the shameful and public martyrdom of once young and beautiful people who think they’re better than us? Think Courtney Love, or Lindsay Lohan, or Joan Crawford (funny how they’re mainly women).
And that’s the same trajectory of Her Smell; a meteoric plummet downwards in slow motion, with a Greek chorus of family and friends (and us, the viewer) pleading from the sidelines for somebody to please think of the children. Behind that despair, though, there’s a sick grin on our faces for the entirety of the descent ― if you’re not on Becky’s side by the end of the film, at least you’ve been entertained.
Her Smell will be playing on Fri 7 June, Sun 9 June & Wed 12 June as part of the Sydney Film Festival. Visit the SFF website for more info.
Eliza Janssen is a Melbourne writer of criticism and screenplays who wants you to know that there are pterodactyls in the background of the breakfast table montage in Citizen Kane. For more information visit elizajanssen.com / @eliza_janssen