Her Smell is a troubled, troubling punk rock epic

Alex Ross Perry on his new film starring Elisabeth Moss, addiction tropes and songs that aren’t anthems.

Elisabeth Moss in Her Smell

I always flirt with death
I look ill but I don’t care about it
I can face your threats and
Stand up straight and tall and shout about it

The Only Ones “Another Girl, Another Planet”

Alex Ross Perry does not make movies about likeable people. Since his “breakout” in 2012, Listen Up Philip, Perry’s films have focused on the self-centred, the egotistical, the fragile, the frazzled, the depressed and the toxic — but none of those characters have been quite as pungently rancid and off-putting as the one at the centre of Her Smell. In it, Elizabeth Moss plays Becky Something, the out-of-control frontwoman of ’90s punk/riot grrl band Something She. When the film opens, she’s an ethylic and chemically enhanced nightmare, tearing through her bandmates (Agness Deyn and Gayle Rankin) as heartily as she tears through the backstage of the venue. Becky’s excesses have left her ex-husband (Dan Stevens) caring alone for their toddler daughter, her manager (Eric Stoltz) in deep financial trouble and her bandmates at wits end. Between swigs of tequila, she cuts down anyone and everyone around her, refusing their help.

Her Smell is split into five tableaus that total about two-and-a-half hours. All five tableaus focus on Becky; if she’s not in the shot, the shot is about people wondering where Becky is. It’s a tour-de-force performance that has gotten Perry comparisons to Cassavetes, but he points out a less obvious influence. Perry and I are both big fans of the podcast Blank Check With Griffin and David, which takes an all-encompassing look at the filmographies of directors who have a huge success early in their careers and are given a blank cheque to make any passion project they want. Perry has been a guest a few times on the show, and on the eve of our interview, Griffin and David hosted a screening of Her Smell with a Q&A in New York City.

“It was really nice,” says Perry. “The Q&A was entirely rambling and unfocused, and we didn’t address one of the two things that I said we had to address. They both know this, but it was how much of the movie I was able to unlock because of their Paul Verhoeven series, and how important Verhoeven became to the movie because of how much time I spent revisiting and thinking about his movies. I said, ‘This is the room to talk about it in,’ and we just didn’t!”

Her Smell is ultimately a film about addiction, though it’s unlike the vast majority of films about addiction in that it’s mainly about the immediate personal fallout of the disease rather than the granular decline. When we meet Becky, she’s already crossed a line; we see early home-video footage of her as the band hits it big, and it’s hard to reconcile the image of that Becky with the current day one. Many of the film’s detractors (but also its defenders) have cited how thoroughly unpleasant Becky is throughout the film, but for anyone who has had close and repeated contact with addicts, it’s not exactly far-fetched.

“She’s not someone who has a bad attitude or a short temper — she’s an addict,” says Perry. “She’s suffering, she’s sick, she has a disease that she can’t cure. That disease causes all of this behaviour. From my perspective, and I believe anyone with the slightest amount of human empathy who has ever experienced something like this in their lives, this is not heinous behaviour you wanna run away from. It can be – but you know that’s not the right response. It’s something that’s very real that people deal with, that someone you know has dealt with, if not you personally. People who want to shut that out are really not going to be really receptive to human emotion or kindness, or really anything. I knew that I could kind of tell that story without making a drug movie — without making Requiem for a Dream or Trainspotting — and making that disease just a function of Becky. I can only do that with confidence because I know that at some point later in the movie, I’m going to shift away from that and create some kind of different view on her than the one that you’ve been watching for the majority of the movie. It doesn’t really matter to me how out-of-control she is, because I know where we’re going.”

In fact, there are no drug scenes in Her Smell. Though Becky drinks throughout, Perry actually avoids any and all drug scenes revolving around her.

“That was an acting thing that was important to Lizzie,” he explains. “She needed to have the freedom to create whatever she needed to do for the scene without being strictly beholden to one drug or another. She worked all that out as a sort of roadmap to modulate the performance — if you’re going into the back room to do whatever she does on page 9, there’s a different way that’s going to hit her on page 11 or on page 29. She had to, minute-by-minute, map that out, but she did that based on what we felt the scenes needed, not what scientific fact of what this drug is like 20 minutes after you swallowed it.”

As Her Smell consists mainly of long rants, backstage conversations and between-song banter, one assumes that Perry gave his cast some margin of improvisational leeway. In fact, what appears on-screen is more or less exactly as scripted.

“There’s nothing in the final edit that’s not in the script, though there are a couple of things in the script that aren’t in the final edit,” he says. “Nothing in there is riffing or adding lines or anything. I had to be very clear about that in my meetings with the actors, even when I was just discussing the possibility of them being in the movie.”

Her Smell is, of course, a movie about music, but music performance doesn’t factor into the film that much. The majority of the film happens in the periphery of music, right before or right after a performance, or in the studio as music is painstakingly eked out. Her Smell’s music is a mix of covers and originals, but perhaps most refreshingly, it is never presented as earth-shaking, genre-defining bops. Where a lot of movies about music stumble is by putting the music up on a pedestal – a movie about a band almost automatically has to be about the best band who wrote the best songs and changed the course of rock music. The music in Her Smell is not treated that way — even if it includes one of the actual best songs of all time, the Only Ones’ “Another Girl, Another Planet.”

“There’s a sweet spot that we sort of buy ourselves access to by telling this particular story,” says Perry. “We’re not telling a story about a band that’s selling out arenas — 30,000 fans, 5 million records sold — and we’re not telling a story about a band that is winning awards or makes the kind of music that ever got that sort of recognition. We’re telling a story about music that’s for the fans, generally considered pretty underground… at its peak, you’re talking a SPIN magazine cover and maybe one platinum record. You don’t have to write — like in A Star Is Born — a song that everyone would sing and would win a Grammy. You can just write music that’s fun and catchy and raw and imagine hearing it on the radio in 1995. You can just go see the band, and that’s that. You don’t have to justify more of the narrative than it does. You’re already setting your target in exactly the right way to not confuse or disappoint people, because you’re not saying, ‘This is the number one song in the country for 15 weeks.’ If you do that, then you have to do That Thing You Do! where the song plays 20 times in the movie and you think, ‘This song is great! This would be a hit song!’ But you only need to deliver that one song. We’re saying, ‘This band is good — they’re on the cover of SPIN!’ (…) I had to just let it go and trust the women who were writing the music to write something good and authentic and catchy. It’s evocative and original but it’s familiar, and we commit to showing the whole thing in the movie.” ■

Her Smell opens at Cinéma Moderne (5150 St-Laurent) on Friday, April 26. Watch the trailer here: