Alex Ross Perry is obsessed with Elisabeth Moss. “Her Smell,” his most recent feature, is wrought with closeups of Moss covered in glitter and peeling mascara as she cries and grovels into the camera. Who wouldn’t love it?
From demure Peggy Olson on “Mad Men” to menacing clones in both “The One I Love” and “Us,” Moss is well known for tackling complex roles requiring emotional heft and range.“Her Smell” is Perry’s second outing with Moss, after his psychological thriller “Queen of Earth.” Both films utilize her at the peak of her acting ability and showcase what films can do when they showcase strong female characters.
“Her Smell” follows fictional ‘90’s musician Becky Something (Moss) as she struggles with sobriety and her popular punk band Something She. Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin play her bedraggled bandmates, who attempt to salvage their band and Something’s sanity. Something’s life is complicated by her relationship with ex-boyfriend Dan Stevens, who takes primary care of their daughter.
The film takes place in day long intervals, with months split up by home video footage of the band in their innocent early years. Frantic editing, a neon rainbow color scheme, extensive closeups and tracking shots help establish Something’s manic headspace and what it’s like to live as an addict. Even though each scene is less than an hour in the film’s world, it feels longer, heightening the tension of Something’s mental deterioration over the course of several months. No wonder her bandmates are fed up with her. Not only does this hectic setting reveal Something’s internal angst, but shows what it can be like for any popular musician to endure stressful concerts and recording studios.
“Her Smell” is a subtly feminist film. Inspired by the ‘90s riot grrrl scene, which included feminist punk bands such as Bikini Kill and Bratmobile. “Her Smell” is a movie about talented musicians who happen to be women. Many of the band members are queer, such as punk rockers Cassie (Cara Delevingne) and Roxie (Ashley Benson), who make up an up and coming punk band with Dottie O.Z. (Dylan Gelula). These aspects of the film are observed, rather than openly addressed. Race is also hinted at in Something’s interaction with spiritual guru Ya-ema (Eka Darville), who she treats like property.
While “Her Smell” is a gorgeous and psychologically fascinating film, some moments fall flat. The disadvantage of only including scenes that take place in real time is that they can drag. The ending of the film is particularly slow, as every issue presented earlier in the film is wrapped up neatly. For such a chaotic film, the viewer is left with barely any questions. At least the visual answers are gorgeously haunting.