'Her Smell': Film Review | TIFF 2018

Unhinged rock 'n' roll world behavior at its worst.

Elisabeth Moss plays a talented but wildly self-destructive and abusive rocker in Alex Ross Perry's new film.

The title alone will elicit everything from raised eyebrows to bad jokes, but that’s nothing compared to what those who take the plunge into the film itself will say about this excruciatingly self-indulgent tale of a punk rock singer whose career hits its expiration point. Unlike anything the inconsistent but normally literate and precise Alex Ross Perry has done to date, the New York auteur’s sixth feature is truly a painful sit for the first 80 minutes, after which a measure of redemption arrives. But it’s too little far too late.

“You’re a mess,” an aging hard-core singer called Becky Something (a totally invested Elisabeth Moss) says to one of her two female bandmates (Agyness Deyn, Gayle Rankin) — but she should really be referring to herself, so pathetically wasted has she become. The first protracted section of the film is devoted to nothing but wretched, insulting and ultimately sad trash talk and wild insults.

Everything that happens during this stretch is ugly and off-putting in the extreme, from her dreadful appearance and her treatment of her one-year-old baby and the unassertive father to dreadful drunken and/or drug-induced invective she unleashes at everyone other than the one who deserves it, namely herself.

Of course celebrities and productive artists are cut a lot of slack for bad behavior because of the money and fame-by-association they confer upon others, and Becky has done that for her band members and producer. But in what does have to be perversely honored as some kind of special accomplishment for Moss as a performer, Becky sustains such an abusive, mad, pathetic and immature display for well over an hour that you just want to bolt. What edification can possibly be gotten from such a grotesque form of exhibitionism?

The only two possible results for someone as thoroughly at the end of her tether as Becky is curtains or some sort of cathartic second act, and the latter is what Becky is lucky to have found. She inhabits a lovely country home, her daughter is now a somewhat aware young thing and Becky, drinking tea and obviously now clean, speaks quietly and carefully in the manner of someone who has achieved some sort of equilibrium and insight. This is nice and all, as is the song she’s composed and plays for her daughter on the piano.

The good vibes continue when the band gets together again and, along with some others, performs for a 20th anniversary event for her Paragon Records label. So the good news is that Becky didn’t become yet another addition to the lengthy list of premature rock music fatalities.

The second half, then, does offer some compensation for the endurance test of the first, but it’s nowhere near enough.

As ever, Moss, in her third collaboration with Perry (after Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth), deeply immerses herself in her part and greatly impresses even as the film itself grates and tries the patience. Becky is the definition of a troubled, immature, impossible brat whom people will tolerate being around only because they benefit from her creatively and financially. Moss indisputably makes her real, even when she’s insufferable company.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Platform)
Production: Bow and Arrow Entertainment, Faliro House Productions
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Cara Delevigne, Dan Stevens, Agyness Deyn, Gayle Rankin, Ashley Benson, Dylan Gelula, Eric Stoltz, Amber Heard, Eka Darville, Lindsay Burdge, Virginia Madsen
Director: Alex Ross Perry
Screenwriter: Alex Ross Perry
Producers: Matthew Perniciaro, Michael Sherman, Adam Piotrowicz, Elisabeth Moss, Alex Ross Perry
Executive producer: Christos Konstantakopoulos
Director of photography: Sean Price Williams
Production designer: Fletcher Chancey
Editor: Robert Greene
Music: Keegan DeWitt, Anika Pyle, Alicia Bognanno

135 minutes