Alex Ross Perry revels in abrasive characters. He has a knack for capturing asshole behavior. His films have never been all that effective for me, leaving me cold and distant from his despicable characters. However, his new film made me care in a way I never have while watching his work. The central character of Her Smell is awful and the film is full of bad behavior but something about the rock star setting and Elisabeth Moss's performance wowed me.
The first hour of the film provides a behind the scenes look at Becky (Moss), the leader of a punk outfit akin to Bikini Kill. Her band Something She has seen their popularity wane. She treats her ex-husband, newborn child, bandmates and others around her terribly. The first hour is an endurance test but is consistently captivating thanks to the incredible Moss. She is a live wire here, turning in what may be her best performance to date and that is saying a lot.
Perry breaks up the film into five acts, inter-splicing home video footage of the band at work. The first half of the film chronicles Becky's spiral into mania thanks to drug and alcohol abuse and too many people telling her how talented she is. Somehow, her bandmates (Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin) stick by her side. So does Howard (Eric Stoltz) her manager who desperately tries to keep Becky from ruining her career.
The emotional intensity of the films first half will drain some viewers but Perry lets humor in while also painting an honest look at what happens before a band takes the stage. Her Smell also doesn't judge Becky on a moral level, instead favoring to portray addiction as the source of her nastiness. Shot in almost exclusively extreme close-ups, Perry never lets us look away from the self-destruction. This creates a strong emotional connection that pays off in the film's final two acts. I was ultimately moved by Her Smell in a way Perry's work often fails to do.
The true reason to see the film is Moss. Some will compare Becky to Courtney Love but Moss transcends any notion of an impression here. She creates Becky as a complex, fraught character who eventually crawls out of her gutter. Moss electrifies the screen here, doing her own singing and playing it appears. While not for everyone, Her Smell is Perry at his finest.