It’s a delight to Peggy fans everywhere that Elisabeth Moss became the Mad Men alumni with the most acclaim and array of incredible roles on her filmography following the show’s end. She may have won her Emmy - deservedly so - for The Handmaid’s Tale but the bulk of her most daring work has come through her keen eye for tiny budget indies such as The One I Love, Mad To Be Normal, and her collaborations with Alex Ross Perry. It’s that same director, with whom she worked on Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth, that brings her to Her Smell. Another day, another TIFF movie about a woman musician’s fraught journey to the top.
Her Smell is a movie of two halves: Addiction and recovery. Moss plays Becky Something, the charismatic lead guitarist and singer of an early ’90s all-girl rock band that’s nearing the end of its lifetime. Backstage at their most recent gig, Becky is drunk, high, paranoid, under the guidance of a shady spiritual leader, and completely out of control. Her ex-husband wants full custody of their baby girl, her manager needs a new album, her band-mates are at the end of their tether and the good days are long gone. Becky is still acting like her band, Something She, are the hottest shit on the planet, but everyone around them knows that they’re reaching their professional nadir, and it’s all her fault. Everyone expects rockstars to act bad but what happens when everyone else grows up and refuses to clean up the mess left behind?
The first half of this almost 140-minute long film is loud, messy and agonizingly tense. Moss succeeds in making Becky’s erratic nature not only tragic but utterly exasperating to watch. Her Smell keenly gets how addiction mixed with ego so often makes people irritating bastards. Becky’s energy is great to watch on stage but unbearable to live with. She never turns off the Rockstar persona, possibly because she has no idea how to, and the ensuing train-wreck cannot help but be hypnotic in its toxicity. You desperately want Becky to get help but know there are more lows to hit before that happens, and you’re still probably going to watch the carnage unfold before she hits her breaking point.
Everyone has already made the Courtney Love comparisons - Moss’s bleached blonde hair, messy eye make-up and red lipstick are certainly no accident - and the echoes are obvious in her performance but it goes beyond the easy jokes. For that first half, everything she does it turned up to the highest setting, amplified by drugs, narcissism and the desperate need to keep the loneliness at bay. When a hot new band (including Cara Delevingne) are brought on board by her beleaguered manager (Eric Stoltz), her seething jealousy is barely concealed by the ego boost she gets from being the idols of these naïve young women, so evidently influenced by her work. It’s hard to watch but then again it should be.
Once Becky hits rock bottom, the film slows down in its second half. Recovery is quieter for her as she remains by choice alone in her crumbling house. The quietness of these scenes highlight the barricade of noise that came beforehand, not just in the backstage scenes where the sounds never cease but in Becky’s own disintegrating mental state. When everything is turned off, there’s not much to do but think about yourself and that may be the worse option for her. Some viewers may find the sharp change in pace a downturn for Her Smell but the tension remains in place. Everyone tiptoes around the clean and sober Becky, terrified they’ll set her off again or unable to get over the horrid things she did to them in the olden days. Watching this, you’re painfully aware of how addiction changes everyone: Addicts lose the benefit of the doubt and everybody around them, as supportive as they can be, are always a step away from throwing in the towel.
The turn into sincerity the second half takes is a new kind of earnestness for Alex Ross Perry, a director who delights in delving into the deepest recesses of human unpleasantness and pretentions. Becky wants to be a good mother to the little girl she all but abandoned, and scenes where she tries to make amends feel earned more through the force of Moss’s performance than the script itself. It doesn’t seem to know how to follow the tidal wave force of the first half, all half-finished platitudes from Becky and egotistical streams of swears. A moment where she plays a new song with revealing lyrics rings truer than a piano performance of Heaven by Bryan Adams, which is just a tad too cloying to work. Fortunately, the emotional arc comes to a satisfying conclusion outside of that.
Her Smell is a lot to deal with. It’s long, loud, abrasive, and often super messy. Then again, it seems unlikely the film could ever have been anything else, not if it wanted to stay faithful to the ugly truth.
Header Image Source: Gunpowder & Sky