Photo courtesy of Bow and Arrow Entertainment
The amazing, exhausting, female-centered “Her Smell” is tough to take, and the struggle begins with the terribly unpleasant title. It concerns the ups and downs of the lead singer of a fictional band called Something She, which is a natural and vastly preferable name. The singer, Becky Something, is such a difficult person, and writer/director Alex Ross Perry did not need that title to announce her or add any further negative descriptors.
Title notwithstanding, this is an incredible film, viscerally unpleasant at times, but riveting throughout. Elisabeth Moss plays Becky Something, and to say that she stars in this film falls somewhat short of covering what she does. She embodies this person, and this person is the movie.
This is an extraordinarily intimate character portrait and Becky is an extraordinary character. Moss, who has tackled so many juicy roles from “Girl, Interrupted” to “Mad Men” to her current starring role on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” is absolutely unhinged and explosive as Becky. Some of those other women characters were anti-heroes, but Becky is a monster.
The film begins with a glimpse of the band Something She in its heyday, as the three members celebrate their first Spin magazine cover and gold record, sometime in the 1990s. Years later, the effectively claustrophobic camera work puts us right in the middle of the disaster Becky Something has become, a deeply paranoid and massively drugged out manipulator, harming everyone in her orbit to the best of her prodigious abilities.
Chillingly, this orbit includes her baby daughter, presented resentfully to her in the arms of her ex, fellow musician Dirtbag Danny (Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey”), and she takes occasional breaks from verbally assaulting everyone in the green room to make scary, ostensibly funny faces at the traumatized toddler. Her vitriol is boundless but intentional, and amidst lacerating accusations for bandmates and former lovers, she participates in various cleansing rituals and past-life journeys with a shaman.
With the dizzying camera work and wild dialogue, there is nevertheless a coherent story going on, masterfully answering the question: Why would anyone be in the same room/band/relationship with Becky? For one thing, many people rely financially on her success. Cajoling, enabling, tolerating — it’s all in the service of trying to get her to keep performing while, as we learn, she is facing a huge tour cancellation. A musician she once helped, Zelda (played by Amber Heard), is now in a position to help her. Every offer is enthusiastically rebuked.
But what is so engaging about this tough and lengthy film is the gleam of the appealing, talented Becky buried deep beneath drugs, alcohol and manic rage. Even when her rants are unintelligible, Becky herself is always clearly intelligent. Even her jeers and babbles are brilliant, hyper-verbal and damaging poetry. Her gleeful torture of her friends and family is always well constructed and verbally inventive, and would be funny if it weren’t utterly terrifying. The dialogue might seem to flow freely, but it is perfectly written.
Moss’s performance is a raw, tour de force and a complete rejection of any idea of a female ingénue. Let me take this opportunity to give a plug to her Sundance TV, Jane Campion-written miniseries “Top of the Lake”; the first season is really incredible. Like Becky herself, Moss is certainly the center of everything in this film, but supporting characters played by Agyness Deyn as her bandmate, Stevens as the father of her daughter and Virginia Madsen as her mother, ably fill out the story and they give good performances in their own right.
“Her Smell” is worth watching if you can stomach Moss’s performance, because it is harrowing for the first hour. She puts the viewer through the wringer, so we are truly invested in her eventual recovery attempts. To see Becky making tea and playing piano with her little girl in the quiet of a country house provides almost physical relief after the cacophony of her disastrous first act. This film is not for the faint of heart, but it is worth it.
“Her Smell” is currently available to stream and is free on Hoopla, a digital media service from the Mobile Public Library.
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