As Her Smell opens, we’re eavesdropping, via grainy home-video footage, on the three young women who make up the rising 1990s grunge band Something She. They’re getting their first look at themselves on the cover of Spin, trying to give this landmark moment as much of a dismissive punk sneer as they can muster. But they’re also ecstatic. Watch their faces closely, and you can tell they love it and hate it and love that they hate it and hate that they love it.
More precisely, watch the face of Elisabeth Moss, who plays Becky, the band’s songwriter and lead singer. Becky is the one that the others—bassist Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) and drummer Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin)—follow, and this includes the social cues for how they should be acting about getting the Spin cover. It takes an actor as talented as Moss—whose command of facial expression is so strong she makes dialogue redundant—to manage a scene as complicated as this. It’s as if she’s directing the movie through her performance.
In fact, Alex Ross Perry is the writer and director behind Her Smell. Perry’s Listen Up Philip was a showcase for Moss, even if she only had a supporting part, while his Queen of Earth misused her, even if she was more the focus. Here the balance is rightly struck. Her Smell further demonstrates Moss’ ability to master quiet asides, which was clear from her breakout role on Mad Men, while also offering bracing evidence of her volcanic potential. As the band’s stature grows and Becky’s head swells along with her substance abuse, she becomes mesmerizingly monstrous.
The first “proper” sequence in Her Smell, after that home-video opening, captures the band years later after the conclusion of an erratic concert tour. Becky acts triumphant backstage, even if it’s clear that she needs every swig she takes from various bottles scattered about to maintain that state of confidence. She’s also callously dismissive of those around her: her bandmates, as well as her long-suffering manager (Eric Stoltz) and her ex (Dan Stevens), who has brought their toddler daughter for a rare visit. Becky is terrifying in the way that she can spit an insult out of the side of her mouth at one of the adults while maniacally smiling at her child. And those insults are often wittily funny (as when she opens a door for someone and declares, “Inward ho!”) There is something eloquently Shakespearean about Becky’s crude demeanor—as if Lady Macbeth was in a band backed by those witches—and she essentially delivers a series of Shakespearean monologues in the film. It’s awful, but we’re in awe.
Why does anyone put up with Becky? Her Smell gives us just enough concert footage to convince us that there is a legitimate aura around her as an artist. Moss does justice to the fantastic Alice Bognanno-penned songs, which recall the blisteringly beautiful music of the likes of Hole and Veruca Salt (Hole’s Courtney Love is an obvious model for Becky). Perry, working with cinematographer Sean Price Williams, adds to the mystique with bleary, vertical shafts of colored light that surround the musicians during the concert sequences, making it look like Becky and her bandmates are about to be beamed up at any moment.
It’s as if Moss is directing the movie through her performance.
There is more visual style in the film’s lengthiest sequence, a disastrous studio session, some years later, where Becky has sequestered herself in a recording room, failing to produce any material. One layered shot watches her through the glass of the engineer’s booth; both her slumped figure on the floor and the reflection of the engineer’s horrified face take up the same plane on the screen. When a rising young female trio (Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson, and Dylan Gelula) arrives for their scheduled session, Becky maniacally invites them to jumpstart her creativity, all while looking like she’s about to devour them. Just when we think we’ve watched Becky hit rock bottom, she seems to ferociously dig her way through the floor to find another level of subterranean selfishness.
It was this downward trajectory, as well as the voraciousness of Moss’ performance, that reminded me of Gena Rowlands’ work with John Cassavetes. In films like A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night, long, drawn-out sequences consider—and demonstrate—life as a form of desperate performance, with Rowlands as the distressed actor in question. In its second half, Her Smell moves beyond the mania that defines something like Woman Under the Influence to detail another side of Becky. Interestingly, this shift begins with another home-video flashback. Holding her newborn daughter, she mumbles as an aside, “I want to stay home with my baby.” A few moments later she takes out a cigarette and strikes a bad-girl pose for the camera. Time to perform.
In a later sequence, after Becky has undergone an offscreen stint in rehab, the camera quietly observes the calmness of her morning tea routine at home, where she now lives alone. She almost seems to be another creature until visitors arrive, when Moss allows trickles of neediness to work their way to the surface. The movie’s bravura finale, set some time later, involves a reunion concert with the other members of Something She. Backstage, Moss gets a mirror moment that nods to Rowlands in Opening Night, where she stares herself down with a piercing pitilessness. What she sees is a woman on a precipice, trying to find a way to capture that early bravado without the substances that fueled so much of it.
Perry plays with us brilliantly here, allowing Becky to disappear for a bit, leaving open the question of whether or not she accepts an invitation from another band to get high just before the performance. Yes, she steadies herself before going onstage, but that could simply be the weight of the moment bearing down on her. Once she gets in front of the crowd, Becky leans into another searing rocker and declares: “I don’t wanna quit / I just wanna be in control of it.” Her Smell asks, on the strength of Moss’ prodigious performance, When it comes to art and fame, is that possible?