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Non-Review Review: Her Smell

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Put frankly, Her Smell stinks.

To be fair, there’s some interesting material here. film has long been obsessed with stories about fame and celebrity, particularly when filtered through the lens of tragedy and recovery. After all, A Star is Born roared to life as the early frontrunner in this year’s awards race, while Vox Lux provided a darker and weirder meditation on similar themes. Her Smell is very much a companion piece to these other films, a meditation on what fame does to a person, how strange it is. Her Smell is the story of a washed up punk rocker who inevitably collides with rock bottom, and yet somehow finds a way to keep going despite (or perhaps because of) the love of the people around her.

It is interesting to note that “Becky She” hits rock bottom and just keeps going, because this feels like an adequate assessment of Her Smell. Alex Ross Perry’s latest film is two hours and fifteen minutes long, and feels every single one of them. The movie has one single point that it keeps hammering again and again and again, one particular rhythm that it keeps playing again and again and again. Scenes within the film are interminable of themselves, but somehow repeated again and again and again. However, this shallow repetition is not the biggest problem with Her Smell, it’s the combination of that shallow repetition with a smug satisfaction, the cocky assuredness that underscores every single moment.

Her Smell is a dull and lifeless movie convinced of (and insistent upon) its own profundity. Roger Ebert famously argued that no good movie is too long and no bad movie is too short. One could cut two hours from Her Smell and it would still be fifteen minutes too long.

Again, to be fair to Her Smell, the cast are mostly game for Alex Ross Perry’s slow motion collapse of a white-hot punk-rock sun. There are some really great players here: Eric Stoltz, Virginia Madsen, Dan Stevens, Amber Heard and Agyness Deyn. However, the film is so caught up in its hype and excitement around “Becky She” that none of these characters get room to breathe. There are glimpse of agency and interiority, suggestions of internal lives and personal ambition, but none of them are allowed to come into focus for long enough because the camera almost immediately throws itself back into the orbit of its self-obsessed punk rocker.

There are several side roles in Her Smell populated by recognisable actors who are in a scene for several minutes before the audience even realises that they are present; Eka Darville as a charlatan shaman, Cara Delevingne as an up-and-coming punk drummer. The camera is too busy bringing audience back to “Becky She” to actually allow any of these marginalised figures room for growth. Indeed, even in those rare moments that Becky is off-screen, the characters are mostly talking about Becky. Eventually there is some exposition about the lives of various characters (such as her drummer Ali), but all of that comes later and largely from other characters in the context of demonstrating how the world has moved past Becky rather than as an expression of their agency.

Elizabeth Moss does the best that she can with the role of Becky, but it’s a thankless task. Moss is as fine a working actor as one is likely to find today, doing great work in both film and television. Even in small roles, such as her single scene in The Old Man and the Gun, Moss can suggest an entire life story and psychology. However, “Becky She” is never really a character. Instead, she is introduced as an unleashed id, then developed into a hackneyed cliché of a fallen pop star on a redemptive arc with a slightly more leashed id. Moss is game for what the script demands of her, going full unbridled ham in a manner that would make Gary Oldman or William Shatner proud. The only issue is that there is nothing underneath it to underpin it.

Her Smell settles into a rhythm quite early. The first ninety minutes are dominated by a familiar pattern. Becky shows up, does something intense and outrageous, sweeping through the lives of the supporting characters like a whirlwind. She’s loud! She’s intense! She’s unreliable! She likes alliteration! She offers pseudo-profundity! Then the film drifts away from Becky for a scene, focusing on various combinations of characters around Becky; her long-suffering manager, her bandmates, her old lover, the up-and-coming punk rock band. This scene is spent on various permutations of how difficult knowing Becky makes the lives of the people around her.

Of themselves, these scenes are long and stock; they are a fixture of every story about genius and success. The troubled genius is so familiar an archetype that it really doesn’t need this level of articulation. Even if it did need this much exposition, it certainly doesn’t need this much repetition. The first ninety minutes of the film are given over to this structure, hammering home something that the film could easily establish in its opening ten minutes. (It often feels akin to a two-hour epic extolling the virtues of water as something that is wet with a wide-eyed insistence that nobody has ever acknowledged this before.) Indeed, the cleverest structural innovation in those interminable opening ninety minutes is when Ross hits on the clever idea of reversing that rhythm for its final iteration.

Instead of an interminable scene of Becky being impossible to manage followed by an interminable scene of characters talking about how Becky is impossible to manage, Ross eventually hits upon the clever idea of giving the audience an interminable scene of characters talking about how Becky is impossible to manage followed by an interminable scene of Becky being impossible to manage. This is ninety minutes into the film. This is at least the third (if not sixth) iteration of this familiar pattern. If the audience has not yet grasped that Becky is difficult to manage and on a path towards burnout and implosion, there is no helping them.

The issue isn’t the character of Becky, who talks in the gibberish and nonsense of somebody who believes that she has seen the face of God. The issue is that Her Smell buys so completely into the character of Becky. Becky is surrounded by enablers and supporters who indulge her worst impulses, who keep her afloat long past the point where she should have bottomed out, and there’s no small irony in the fact that their love of her just makes the situation worse. (And, yes, longer.) However, director Alex Ross Perry himself is that biggest enabler and supporter of Becky, and he has none of the excuses of the characters inside the narrative. The issue with Her Smell isn’t just that it’s indulgent and cliché, the issue with Her Smell is that it’s also convinced of its own genius.

Her Smell buys completely and unquestioningly into Becky’s nonsense in a manner that severely undercuts the film. Her Smell genuinely believes that Becky is a creative genius who deserves unquestioning support and love, despite functioning as a black hole from which her friends and family are lucky to escape. It is possible to construct compelling narratives of figures as pathetic and broken as Becky, and it’s great that many of these figures – like those featured in shows like Russian Doll and Fleabag – are women. However, Her Smell lacks any real distance from Becky, instead serving as a propaganda piece hijacked by a fictional character. There are times when Her Smell feels like an episode of The Office upon which David Brent was given cut.

This is most obvious at the climax of the film. In its final half-hour or so, Her Smell settles down into the familiar rhythms of the celebrity redemption story. This is no less cliché than the first two-thirds of the movie, but it is at least structured and focused. However, it is telling how Her Smell chooses to redeem Becky. Becky spends the entire movie taking advantage of the people around her, incapable of imagining a situation where she is not centre-stage. As a result, she alienates friends and almost bankrupts her manager. She causes trouble on tour, and pushes away a more successful former colleague. Eventually, Becky is forced to go away. She retreats to obscurity. She learns how to be a person again. This is all standard character arc stuff.

And then Becky expresses her humility in a manner that reveals a lot about the film. Becky is convinced to come back and play one last concert to celebrate her manager’s twentieth anniversary in the business, the manager who mortgaged his house for an album that she never delivered. This is a big moment for Becky. This is her realising that she is not the centre of attention, that she is part of a community, that she is loved and that she needs to love in return. Indeed, Becky makes a big show of bringing the various female characters together twice over this concert in order to demonstrate solidarity and community. In theory, this represents growth. The only issue (and it’s a pretty big issue) is how Her Smell chooses to represent this growth.

Becky proceeds to take her slot on this tribute show for her hardworking manager who has given her so much… and to make it all about how much she has grown as a person. She turns the stage show into a grotesque pantomime of humility, an unveiling of a grotesque “Becky 2.0”, who is no longer defined by how little she cares about others but instead by how loudly she – as the centre of attention – declares that she totally cares for others. Becky proceeds to turn her manager’s anniversary party into a celebration of her growth and development. She even acknowledges that she effectively upstages the night’s planned closing number by creating her own impromptu supergroup for her set. That supergroup, naturally, is headed by her.

This is an incredibly self-centred performance of humility, the sort of apology that is more about the person apologising than acknowledging the harm caused. There is something potentially interesting in this, a comment on how self-obsession in popular culture has developed to such an extent that even acknowledging self-obsession can be played as an example of self-obsession; think about how Spider-Man: Homecoming has Peter Parker redeem himself to Tony Stark by doing exactly what he was told not to do or how the character’s confession in Second Act is framed as a public spectacle and act of contrition that would actually actively humiliate and hurt the very people to whom she is supposed to be apologising.

A smarter movie would play with this contrast and idea, develop it in interesting directions. Is Becky’s self-centredness simply evolving into a more cynical and self-aware form, reflecting a changing cultural mood and a shifting social moment? Is this what we expect from modern celebrity culture, in contrast to the older punk rock aesthetic that Becky embodied earlier in the film? Is everything a cynical and calculated performance, including the familiar beats and rhythms of the celebrity redemption story? Unfortunately, Her Smell never seems self-aware enough to acknowledge any of this. Instead, Her Smell buys into the myth of Becky. Her hijacking and sabotage of her put-upon manager’s part is presented as a genuine moment of introspection and development.

This is Her Smell in a nutshell, a movie that never looks past any of the clichés at its core, instead staring at familiar images for far too long before awkwardly insisting how intelligent and sophisticated it is.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 1

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