“I don’t wanna quit, I just wanna be in control of it” – Becky Something, Her Smell (2018)
Some movies challenge you. Difficult to watch, grappling with heady or uncomfortable themes or ideas, or just straight-up disorienting as the stupid camera swirls around like you’re on the Gravitron at the fair*. Other movies are comforting, like a warm, uncontroversial blanket to wrap yourself up in and let you know that you’re safe. The best movies, though, are a bit of both. A movie that you can nestle yourself in but which also have a little meat to them, that jostle you out of bed or the fugue state brought on by that edible you just took, if only to get another bag of chips.
Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell (2018) is one of the latter. It’s a film that, for most of its running time, delights in disorienting you and making you uncomfortable. It puts focus–real, close-up focus–on its problematic star, Becky Something as portrayed by Elisabeth Moss, as she spirals and alienates everyone around her. Her Smell makes you feel like you’re in the music star’s inner circle, and adamantly asserts that this is a dangerous place to be, one that everyone in it flees from eventually. It’s so jarring that you find yourself pleading with it for a moment of respite, and when that comes–later than you think–the relief is, for me, the exact tonic I need. It’s a good example of the release found in the ‘body genres’ and are so rarely found in dramas outside of the Hallmark variety. But it sure as beans is present in Her Smell.
Her Smell centres on Becky Something (Moss), Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn), and Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin), who comprise the 90’s alt-rock band Something She. Set over five single-take acts over the course of about nine years, Her Smell tracks the band over a period of decline, brought on by Becky’s advancing instability and her penchant for alienating everyone around her, using her undeniable talent for wordplay to sling barbs at the least-deserving in her circle. At the beginning of each of these acts, we get flashbacks to happier times–Something She’s first magazine cover or their first gold records–that really emphasize the wedge that Becky has created between the band members. Drawing on the abrasive and combative persona of Courtney Love** most of all but changing the details just enough to plausibly deny any relation, Perry and Moss craft and portray Becky as a character of such singular talent that it’s impossible to drift out of her orbit, no matter how much gleeful abuse she hurls in every direction.
In all but two of the segments, the camera primarily follows Becky as she navigates the labyrinthine backstages of a rock concert. It swirls around and around her, as though trying to keep up with the constantly-moving mercurial musician. The perspective is perfectly suited to Becky’s character, who flits from room to room, conversational topic to witty put-down, from loved one to target, and changing emotional states on a dime. It’s exhausting and contributes to a drawn-out feeling of tension, not least because the camera never lets up or cuts away. Moss, for her part, is the perfect actor for this role, and is perhaps the best working actor when a camera is tightly focused on her face. As she does in her roles in The Handmaid’s Tale and The Invisible Man (2020), Moss commands more screen real estate by volume than practically anyone in Hollywood, conveying every granular nuance of complex emotion with a mere twitch, slight smile, or furrow of her brow. In Her Smell, Moss once again smooths over the rough edges–of the script, the cinematography, and the delicious discomfort of her character with the sheer will of her performance. She rages against her fellow bandmates, her ex (Dan Stevens), her former manager (Eric Stoltz), and her mother (Virginia Madsen), a plucky up-and-coming girl group called Akergirls (Carla Delevigne, Ashley Benson, and Dylan Gelula) challenging them to rise–or stoop–to her level. Becky feels like a bomb constantly in danger of going off, and which can and does spray shrapnel after every confrontation.
Perhaps the film’s most uncomfortable act has Something She in a studio, desperately trying to work on new material and being hamstrung by Becky’s changing whims at every turn. They’re interrupted by the Akergirls, freshly signed to the label and who show up at the studio to record their own music. Becky is, at first, cautiously nurturing and welcoming, but the looks from Marielle show, all too clearly, that Becky is threatened by the young women. As always, she lashes out with a kind of surgical precision, dropping in literary references and turning them into snide insults. This segment ends with Akergirls and Marielle looking wistfully at Becky alone in the studio, improvising a song that might be great, and silently lamenting the fact that Becky is her own worst enemy. They (finally) seem to resign themselves to the fact that this version of Becky Something will never get out of her own way, and that Something She is finished.
So why, then, do I keep finding my way back to Her Smell? The film I’ve just described to you seems anything but safe or comfortable. It’s a film that shouldn’t feel as familiar or grounding as it does, but for me, and perhaps this is a product of me being a horror fan, it’s one I can’t help but revisit over and over because of the rollercoaster it takes you on. Moss’s Becky draws me back in again and again in the exact way that the character inspires a perverse loyalty from her bandmates, family, and everyone in her sphere, even as she insistently pushes them away. In truth, what makes Her Smell a favourite of mine is the second-to-last act of the film. It’s the only portion of the Her Smell, generally a very noise-forward film, with long swaths of quiet. It’s meditative and mournful as Becky comes to terms with the opportunities, friendships, and even family that she’s either thrown aside or crushed under her substantial wheels. When she sits down with her now-older daughter at a piano to sing a plaintive cover of Bryan Adams’ ‘Heaven’, or sings the beautiful original song ‘Control’ to Marielle as an act of apology it feels like when the burning sensation of something particularly spicy starts to subside. All of the tension and the spinny cameras subside and make way for what could almost be a perfect ending to the film. Almost. Something’s missing, and Becky seems almost despondent and lost without having truly made amends to everyone she’s hurt. She’s still convinced that leaving her home will destroy her, and that she’s at least partly justified (she’s not) in the way she’s acted over the years.
There’s a final act to Her Smell. One which, like most horror movies do with their villains, gives Becky one last gasp and an opportunity to worry about whether she’s gone back to her old ways. It’s four years since Something She has played together, and newly-sober Becky has rejoined with her bandmates for the 20-year anniversary of her record label. Again, we follow Becky through a backstage filled with potential confrontations and triggering people from her past. It seems as though everything’s set up for Becky to fail herself and Something She once again. This last act is a final moment of tension where you worry that Becky won’t make it to–or through–her last gig. The second-last act, that quiet reconciliation of Becky with her family and with Marielle feels like such a perfect denouement and is so beautifully-acted that this last moment of worry doesn’t seem needed, and if you’re at all familiar with tragic music industry stories like The Rose (1976) or the 1976 or 2018 versions of A Star Is Born, it seems obvious what Becky and Her Smell is hurtling toward. Thankfully, Perry doesn’t take that expected route, and provides Becky with a comforting opportunity redemption, one which she takes. What’s safer than a happy ending and a redemptive arc? It cements Her Smell as the unlikeliest comfort movie for me, one with the ability to turn even the coldest November day around.
*I’m looking at you, Gaspar Noe
**Or, perhaps, an alternate reality version of Courtney Love that never met Kurt Cobain
Sachin Hingoo’s solo album has been placed on permanent hiatus.
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