REVIEW: Her Smell [2019]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: R | Runtime: 134 minutes | Release Date: April 12th, 2019 (USA)
Studio: Gunpowder & Sky
Director(s): Alex Ross Perry
Writer(s): Alex Ross Perry

“I see the void of eternity”

The public loves a good train wreck when it comes to rockstars. That notion of burning your candle on both ends to create music that lasts forever at the expense of a life snuffed out too soon carries the sort of romanticism you must give pause to in hindsight, though. Because is the art worth it? We aren’t simply talking about the suffering of one tortured soul when there’s everyone who ever loved them too: abused significant others, abandoned children, broken friendships, and helpless benefactors left holding a bill that moves well past dollars and cents. The answer should be a resounding “No” and yet the pattern has continued throughout history over multiple mediums. To create is to die because legacy trumps happiness. But what if it didn’t?

What if the artist’s life was allowed value beyond the art its steady decline and inevitable demise makes? So many “Behind the Music” episodes showed the destructive nature of geniuses that get sober, relapse, and enter rehab again and again for their art because those looks beneath the curtain are selling that music. How did the musicians’ vices, temperaments, and demons affect the product? That’s what’s important because that’s what we can touch. And the same goes for every form of celebrity. Identity is compromised for image, peace of mind usurped by a hype machine that quite literally dehumanizes everyone caught within. We find ourselves tiring of this repetitive cycle because it renders bodies disposable. To age is to become a joke. To die is to become immortal.

That’s why Alex Ross Perry‘s Her Smell proves a necessary contrast to focus upon priorities rather than myths. What he delivers with a show-stopping performance from Elisabeth Moss is an uncensored look at rock bottom through the eyes of those impotent souls forced to watch. So rather than witness Becky Something (Moss) spew bullshit and drug herself into a stupor in a way that makes us pity her because of what once was (each chapter beginning with a memory of simpler times), we can do nothing but despise her arrogance. She’s an ugly visage of self-loathing externalized as rage projected upon those who love her despite herself. It’s a transformation we abhor within minutes and therefore one her bandmates have grown tired of pretending wasn’t permanent long ago.

You don’t know how refreshing it is to see Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin) and Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) treat their lead singer as a burden because that’s the only true depiction of love this situation can provide. Yes they ultimately leave out of frustration, but the thing keeping them away is the reality that staying means watching her die. It’s that same love that keeps her ex (Dan Stevens‘ Danny) coming back despite knowing better because he wants their daughter to have a mother and hopes seeing her can trigger something within Becky that her own life cannot. It’s why her mother (Virginia Madsen‘s Ania) will take the abuse and why her producer (Eric Stoltz‘s Howard) mortgages his home to give her five chances too many.

Is the first hour-plus of run-time a tough exercise in attrition as a result? You bet it is. Becky is so far down the rabbit hole that she’ll burn bridges she doesn’t even have to guarantee a fate we must start believing is intentional. She pits old against new (Howard has a fresh signee in her band Something She’s mold with the trio of Cara Delevingne‘s Crassie Cassie, Ashley Benson‘s Roxie Rotten, and Dylan Gelula‘s Dottie O.Z.) to maintain a bubble around herself that can only be broken with violence she incites and inflicts. This is a woman dying before our eyes amongst people wearing as much betrayal on their faces as futility. Any attempt to help earns aggression until Becky’s imminent isolation exposes the debilitating sorrow beneath.

It’s this expert emotional duality that gets us through the carnage because it shows how everything she does is a calculated move towards self-hurt. To sit in that headspace for so long as Becky rewards charlatans fueling her psychosis (Eka Darville‘s shaman Ya-ema) and punishes those like Ali and Mari who slap her across the cheek to coax out the woman they pray still exists under this façade populated by so many invisible scars isn’t for the weak. But it’s crucial towards allowing the second hour’s honest reflection to hit with full potency. We must watch her as this irredeemable monster to understand why things can’t simple go back to normal. Because as much as the alcohol and drugs grabbed hold, so too did the fame.

Sobriety means escaping the music as much as the rest. It means putting aside the persona of Becky Something and reclaiming Rebecca Adamcyzk. Will that be enough? Who knows? Will it clear her mind to see her daughter as more than an albatross threatening to bring down the ship that is Something She? Maybe. Don’t expect her to get the benefit of the doubt, though. The people around her know too well what she has wrought and what will happen if she slides back towards temptation. Singing Bryan Adams‘ “Heaven” to little Tama is a step forward, not evidence of recovery. Reuniting with those she’s wronged—no matter their recognition of why they were targeted by her jealous rage (see Amber Heard‘s Zelda)—is but on single step.

For all the fun it is to watch Moss play this loathsomely uncontrollable character, seeing her out from under that armor with the pain of everything she’s done etched upon her brow is what you’ll remember most. What was unbridled punishment punctuated by periodic revelations of sorrow is replaced by unyielding depression that no amount of smiling can hide. So don’t think this thing won’t still end in death—whether it be Becky Something’s or Rebecca Adamcyzk’s. If anything, the chance of her flame extinguishing is higher now than before. That pain doesn’t just go away. You don’t just pick up where you left off and live happily ever after. If the art destroyed you once, it will again. Acknowledging this fact takes more courage than the rest.

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