The first time we see the punk rockers of Something She perform in Alex Ross Perry’s latest, Her Smell, the lead singer and face of the group, Becky “Something” (Elisabeth Moss) sings: “I always flirt with death / I always flirt with death / I look ill, but I don’t care about it.”
The crowd erupts in applause. This is what they came to see, but they don’t really understand what they’re hearing. The lyrics to the song are truer than they may appear. After the show, Becky is a blur. Her child is brought backstage, but it is her bandmate Ali (Gayle Rankin) who takes her. Before Becky can confront her child, her ex-husband, and her manager she engages with her spiritual guru Ya-ema (Eka Darville), who is seemingly her first line of reasoning in her turbulent life of rock-n-roll vices.
This situation may sound like a same-song-different-chorus scenario, but Perry’s direction and narrative structuring adds a unique energy to the film that sets it apart from your average live fast and die young story. It is a film told in five acts, distinct in that they are separated by home video footage of the band in their early days, rising up to prominence in the industry.
The home video interludes are simple signposts, in a sense. They’re almost like epigraphs between chapters; they feel disconnected and distant from Becky’s present. But they also give a brief glimpse at Becky’s path to her present. They serve as a mini-arc. At first, we see the band partying, slurring odes of joy to their first ever magazine cover. In the next, Becky is smashing her band’s gold record. The partying is the same, but the appreciation for her progression as a musician is slipping away.
Becky’s arc in the present is even more turbulent. Backstage during act one, there is the constant hum of another band onstage. It pounds in the back of the sound mix, a constant nag on the senses. It is unsettling and almost unnatural sounding. It complements the wild mania of Becky as she pushes people away, imbibes liberally, and takes what she believes to be sage advice (which is clearly coming from a less-than reputable source) that further isolates her from those who love her.
The disquiet of this isolation and intoxication, the fury and the mania, is filtered to the audience through a whirring camera. It hangs in tight on Moss’s face. It spins around to capture claustrophobic back rooms lit with grotesque florescents and pale neons. Perry pulls focus when he can, but he ultimately leaves the camera to fade in and out of coherence like his protagonist fades in and out of lucidity.
This protagonist is the main event of the film. Like in his Queen of Earth, Perry lets everything else move out of the way so that Moss can shine through. Her performance is the drumbeat that pulses even when other pieces fall flat.
And there is some flatness, particularly near the end. The final act of the film starts trending toward something more neat and tidy. Given this is a film where tidiness is otherwise nowhere to be found, it is a jarring resolution. There is a will-she, won’t-she conversation going on throughout this final leg that is used to add stakes. It presents a questioning of where Becky’s character arc will end, but this results in a positive-or-negative binary.
This feels trite in comparison to the rest of the film, in which we follow every radical shift in Becky’s character with a cinema verite style and an unsaid complexity. We are presented with Becky, in all of her glorious and inglorious traits. There may be a simplicity to the concept of a rockstar with a drug habit, but Moss’s performance adds layers of hurt and drive. She is living at once her vision of success and a nightmare of spiraling out of control.
The final act does a slight disservice to this dichotomy, giving Becky a sendoff rather than a resolution to her complicated journey. It is simply too neat.
In act two, Moss allows her character to explode, implode, and spring forth with moments of intense and beautiful clarity. Haggard, discordant jamming—a waste of studio time that has been reserved for a newer, younger band—gives way to quiet, harmonious ballads that exude all of the pain and consternation in Becky’s life. Then, when the young band becomes proteges, Becky sits and listens to their honed sound. With a single expression, Moss reveals Becky’s entire character. She’s gotten lost in her pursuit of what she once had: a clear sense of artistic vision that has been clouded by the buzz of backstage booze and drugs.
In act five, the pursuit of a clear end is an inadvertent subterfuge to Moss’s nuanced work. But Perry otherwise avoids the traps in this sort of narrative. Of all the depictions of parasitic fame and iconic downfalls, Her Smell is the rare breed that cuts through the BS. It hints at the tired conventions of the territory, but the narrative structure makes the cliches mere punctuation in Becky’s streaming manifesto of implosive behavior. And, ultimately, Alex Ross Perry serves to remind us of what we already know: Elisabeth Moss is a tidal wave of acting talent.
Her Smell: B+
Can subterfuge be inadvertent? I don’t think so, but I’m going to use it anyway. It sounds nice.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)