Elisabeth Moss dominates the screen as a crash-and-burn rock star in Alex Ross Perry’s latest provocative drama.
That self-centeredness is often related to self-hatred is perhaps not an obvious truth, but it seems pretty evident in the case of a lot of actors, musicians, and other performers, since by necessity their art involves self-display. Writer-director Alex Ross Perry loves to explore these ideas, especially in terms of relationships and creativity, as in Listen Up, Philip, a movie about a pretentious writer that I reviewed here back in 2014. Elisabeth Moss played a supporting role in that, and ended up practically stealing the film. She’s now on center stage in Perry’s new picture about a rock star crashing and burning. It has an evocative title: Her Smell.
The film opens with a raucous encore by a three-woman rock band called Something She, which we learn through home movie style flashbacks has had recent success with one of their songs that became a gold record. Moss plays the lead singer and guitarist, Becky Something (obviously not her real name), and after the show we witness her melting down as her ex visits the dressing room with their infant daughter and his new girlfriend. It doesn’t take long for us to figure out that Becky is an addict, definitely inebriated in this scene, and so full of herself that she heedlessly alienates everyone around her. She has a bizarre kind of new age shaman who follows her around performing impromptu ceremonies and making deep pronouncements. When a pop star named Zelda, played by Amber Heard, shows up offering to make Something She the opening act on her new tour, Becky goes into full nasty mode, mercilessly ripping apart her music. Then the arrival of the band’s manager, the incredibly patient Howard, played by Eric Stoltz, does little to resolve the tension, during which the bass player, played by Agyness Deyn, and drummer (Gayle Rankin), become increasingly disturbed.
The scene is played out in what amounts to real time, and that is Perry’s strategy throughout the film, which has five scenes in total. The second scene is in a recording studio, where Becky ups the ante, and the third is prior to a concert for which she shows up hours late and where we meet her long-suffering mother, played by Virginia Madsen.
But to say that Becky is hard to take is an understatement, and the film pushes the audience to the limit just like the characters. All I can say is: you need to hang on because, I can assure you, there is a payoff, and it comes in the last two scenes, in which Becky must finally face the wreckage she’s created.
Elisabeth Moss has become one of the most sought after actresses in movies and television because of her ability to tap raw emotion, the versatility in the types of roles she can play, and because of her lack of vanity. She doesn’t hold back here—the raging sarcasm and torrential outpouring of free association is all the more amazing balanced with the quiet, cavernous grief of her performance as the chastened Becky in the film’s second half.
This is a music film about the empty spaces between the notes, and the terrors of ego and self-delusion that come with fame and success. But this is, however, not a cautionary film—after all, who would be cautioned by this? Her Smell turns out to be about true collaboration, about letting your friends help create the kind of art that you could never make on your own.