In Her Smell, Alex Ross Perry’s third collaboration with Elisabeth Moss after Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth, Moss plays Becky Something, the guitarist and singer who heads up the fictional yet quintessentially ’90s-era band, Something She. Becky is backed by Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) on bass and Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin) on drums, she’s got an infant daughter with ex-husband and DJ Danny (Dan Stevens), her relationships with her mother (Virginia Madsen) and manager (Eric Stoltz) have seen better days, and so, too, has Something She. “Perry and his sterling cast jump-start their movie by throwing us to the wolves,” writes K. Austin Collins for Vanity Fair, yet by the end: “Love is, unexpectedly, the force that buoys the movie. Marielle says it best: ‘You were horrible, but it never made me not love you.’”
Throughout the first three of the film’s four sections, Becky sabotages concerts and recording sessions with her drug-fueled meltdowns. “What at first seems like an extreme, brain-rattling punk variation on Cassavetes’s Opening Night, charting the mental breakdown of a Courtney Love-like rock star way past the honeymoon stage of a post-platinum career, evolves into an experience all its own, one keyed into the desperations and no-way-out feelings of both an addict and of the people who want to help despite the abuse heaped upon them,” writes Michael Koresky for Film Comment.
In Cinema Scope, Jason Anderson notes that Her Smell “bears more than a few traces of Fassbinder’s withering take on the cruelties and co-dependencies that make great art and artists possible.” Some of that dynamic is also at work in Listen Up Philip, which centers on an irritable writer loosely based on Philip Roth. Still, Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov finds that Her Smell “strays noticeably outside of ARP’s normal comfort zone, in which people are reflexively, casually bruising and vicious to each other.” This time around, “the soundtrack is loaded with non-diegetic sounds amplifying the unrest, and Sean Price Williams’s camera is mobile and fluid in ways that Perry’s last few films, mostly visually locked-down, were not.” While there are still “a lot of dazzlingly mean put-downs,” the “manic energy and formal twitchiness is new.”
For IndieWire’s David Ehrlich, Her Smell is “truly one of the most noxious movies ever made, which might help to explain why it’s also Perry’s best.” And at Slant, Greg Cwik notes that it’s also “Perry’s most chaotic and unmuffled film—until it isn’t.” The final section finds Becky delivering a solo performance, accompanying herself on piano, as she sings two full songs to her daughter. “Over and above the furious—and ultimately painfully tender—drama, Perry achieves something of a new, grand version of his own cinematic music,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody.
Chances are, we’ll see Perry and Moss working together again. Variety’s Brent Lang interviews Moss, who tells him she’d “make six more movies with [Perry] if I could.” And for the Los Angeles Times, Mark Olsen talks with Moss and Perry, who insists that Her Smell is “not about ’90s music. It’s not about the dynamics of a band. It’s not about celebrity and not about motherhood, it’s not about addiction, it’s about identity. Simply put, this is a movie that has nine characters, all of whom live their lives with a name that is not their name. And that, to me, is the movie.”
For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.