' ' Cinema Romantico: Her Smell

Monday, May 13, 2019

Her Smell

In marrying grunge visionary Kurt Cobain, 90s Riot Grrrl Courtney Love was often seen as an interloper or an interferer, castigated, in that sweeping sort of way, as a witch, of sorts, like she cast a spell on her husband, which was the only way she could have landed him in the first place. It’s a familiar stereotype of famed rockers partners, like Yoko Ono, who blatantly turned the screw with the song “Yes, I’m A Witch.” Stevie Nicks, meanwhile, built her whole extraordinary career off subverting the witch trope. Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss), something of a Courtney Love analogue, driving force behind a fictional influential alt rock band called Something She in Alex Ross Perry’s stupendous “Her Smell” is not so much a witch, despite briefly nibbling on the necks of a few peers and calling them “my witches”, as cast under a spell of celebrity. Perry conjures this supernatural sensation in league with sound designer Ryan Price straight away in the opening scene where a night-omnipresent low cacophony on the soundtrack suggests crowd noise until it gradually dawns on you that it’s something else, a pervasive kind of murmur, suggestive of the sound design on David Fincher’s “Seven”, like a creeping sonic stink you can’t get rid of, and in the context of some far-out religious ceremony in which Becky is half-partaking and her goth vibes and her trippy incantations emit the sense of her own negative energy. Indeed, when she leaves the room, this sound noticeably stops; when she returns, so does the rumble.

This sequence sets the film’s tone, a series of five oft-confrontational, dialogue-driven set pieces giving us a front row seat to Becky’s mental and emotional unraveling, as if we are flies on the wall at NellcĂ´te for the recording of “Exile on Main St.”, stalking through green rooms and recording studios like every person she encounters is another bridge to be instantly doused with gasoline. She flits about accosting her bandmates, her ex-husband and his fiancĂ©, treating her own daughter less like the infant she is than some inhuman rag doll, and exasperating her record label impresario Howard, played brilliantly by Eric Stoltz with simultaneous cool patience and sneaking stress, demonstrating the toll dealing with rock stars takes, where every cigarette he smokes is not a prop but a lifeline. And Perry’s camera, jittery and up close, places us squarely not only in Becky’s headspace but all those stressed-out souls in her orbit, occasional cuts to long shots, which typically recount someone other than Becky, emitting the air of momentous relief.

If it is deliberately repetitive, Moss’s incendiary performance is not, playing the role so high on her character’s supply that she is virtually suspended in the orbit of her own vehement ego, not merely intoning that these mere mortals can’t keep up with her but living it out in the jarring speed of her line delivery and surprising dexterity of wit born out in the script’s dialogue despite her obvious chemical dependency. And for as bracing as the material is there is a surprising rush of joy coursing through the performance, with Moss playing Becky like she’s getting a kick out of swan diving into the gutter, frequently proffering an observation or dry joke so cutting and comical that you will just suddenly feel joy or laughter welling up inside in spite of all the ick you were just feeling. These witty eruptions are sudden windows into what must have made Becky a significant artist and beloved bandmate, just as the film’s concert prologue gives a glimpse of the band’s sonic glory.

That’s all they are though, glimpses, as Perry pointedly forgoes a rise and fall narrative, airdropping us directly into the fall, which is partially provocative but more in the service of truly thrusting notions of redemption under the microscope. When the movie finally cuts away from the harsh lighting of rock clubs and music studios for the airy, earthy tones of Becky’s home, where she sits in pajama pants and a sweater eventually visited by her ex-husband and now adolescent daughter, she might be working toward clemency, but the scene’s sensation is still isolating, underscored by the photography’s chilly hues. By only showing us at her worst, Perry is challenging us to still hope for the best while demonstrating the inherent difficulty of that challenge. That comes through further in the film’s fifth and final stanza, a Something She reunion, in which the claustrophobia and sinister sound design return. Perry mines incredible suspense from the recurring idea of Becky vanishing before shows, the entire sequence resting on a knife’s edge, seemingly primed for an explosion only to unexpectedly bloom into exorcism.

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