Her Smell May 20, 2019
Alex Ross Perry
2 Hrs., 15 Mins.
t’s sometimes said that if someone has distinct, pungent body odor but doesn’t seem to notice it all that much, it’s an indicator that they lack self-awareness. If they can’t tell when they smell like a sweating onion, then how might they have a minimally accurate idea of how they're perceived? The notion was something I thought of often while watching Her Smell (2019), Alex Ross Perry’s rock ‘n’ roll drama about a stick of dynamite of a singer
who, as the film opens, has lit the fuse. The title of the film has oftentimes been looked at as if it were a pejorative — simplistically demeaning a woman whom the movie is trying to get inside the head of. But I looked at it not so much as a rude comment on the heroine’s general grossness and more on the idea that she’s someone so bombastic, and so lacking in self-awareness, that her presence and the aura which comes with it have a certain sort of musk.
This movie isn’t about Courtney Love, known first for being the widow of Kurt Cobain, second for being the frontwoman of Hole, the seminal grunge four-piece. But the parallels are obvious in the movie. In the film, a roaring, career-best Elisabeth Moss plays the unpredictable drug-abusing lead singer of a rock trio that was big enough in the early 1990s to cover Spin magazine. Her name is Becky Something; she has a baby daughter whom she often unthinkingly endangers. Her band is called Something She, which plays songs featuring Hole’s same self-deprecation and introspection but sounds more like, to my ear, a group more along the lines of Veruca Salt or Throwing Muses — all raucous guitars and percussion with girlish vocals. (All tracks in Her Smell were written by Bully frontwoman Alicia Bognanno, and, characteristically for the songwriter, have a redolent grunge tinge; admittedly, though, they'd be quite a bit better if Bognanno were singing them.)
Her Smell is an omnibus movie of sorts, starting just when Becky’s behavior has become too erratic to stomach any longer. It comprises five acts, each of which chronicles a key moment in Becky’s fall from grace and subsequent ploys to recover. The structure allows Perry, aware of what works and what doesn’t about rock movies, to avoid being victimized by the inertia that overwhelms many a classic rise-and-fall story. The later scenes are impressive in the ways they bring introspection to the fore — there’s a quietness to them that sharply contrasts with preceding scenes — but the best segments are the ones at Her Smell’s front.
Rambling and jittery, they reminded me of the best moments in the films of John Cassavetes, which were largely improvised and featured kinetic, close-up-fixated photography but also bore tremendous emotional resonance. The summit is the second segment, during which Something She contentiously breaks up while trying to record an album. At the same time, The Akergirls (Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson, and Dylan Gelula, all with badly dyed pastel ‘dos), a new band in town under the same label, show up for their own studio session. The scene is one of masterfully controlled chaos — equal parts a showcase of a band falling apart at the seams and one of heartrending false hope. In the middle of the skirmish, Becky decides that aligning herself with (perhaps even becoming the newest member of) The Akergirls will salvage her career. You can feel the unease as if it were the remnants of a sneeze floating in the air; it comes with a bit of a sting, too, because Becky seems to so fiercely believe in her misconceived scheme.
The lasting in-the-moment disorder of Her Smell engenders some problems. There's little sense of what Becky’s addiction is rooted in or the sort of hold she once had on the culture; she's a great character we sense could be more fully formed than she is. The characters, riveting despite being built to always be eclipsed, still read like water bugs riding ripples after a crocodile plunges in a swamp. They're mostly there to react to the effects of something bigger. (As Becky’s bandmates, though, Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin convey exactly what it must feel like to be committed to a musical career but have the person steering the ship be so punishingly temperamental.)
But the dramatic frenzy is so magnetic that we’re partial to being lenient toward the thinner aspects of the narrative. It works almost exclusively in thrilling right-now-consequences-laters. To paraphrase Pitchfork’s Kristen Yoonsoo Kim, during Her Smell we often think of Live Through This, the title of Hole’s second studio album, with Becky acting as the “this” for those in her life. But, of course, Becky herself is also forever living in a “this" of her own making, trying to claw her way out without much success. To watch Her Smell is to watch something analogous to a train wreck or a capsizing ship: our lives won’t improve from watching, and we can’t stop the mania or violence. But looking is a lot easier than not. A-