Sydney Film Festival Review: Her Smell is an exhausting endurance test, saved by Elisabeth Moss’ electric performance

Another day, another music biopic. Well, almost. Continuing the resurgence of cinematic fare concerned with the chaos that is the life of the musician, Her Smell takes inspiration from the 90s rock scene where female singers like Courtney Love, PJ Harvey, and Shirley Manson gave their male counterparts plenty of competition.

With a bleached-blonde lead singer in the driver’s seat of this film, the comparisons to Love are unavoidable. But even Love herself may be shocked at the antics displayed here. With a chaotic and destructive heroine, prone to outbursts of erratic behaviour, Her Smell makes for a challenging and difficult viewing experience. Whether the film is worth the effort will depend on how much anarchy you’re prepared to endure.

A car crash told over five extended vignettes, Her Smell portrays the age-old story of an out-of-control musician hitting absolute rock-bottom. We first meet wild child Becky Something (a sensational Elisabeth Moss), lead singer of 90s punk band Something She, and her bandmates, drummer Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin) and bassist Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn), through grainy home video footage at the height of the group’s success. As we see the band giddily excited at the unveiling of their first Spin magazine cover, we’re suddenly brought into present day for a jarring and stark contrast.

Far from the heyday of their success, the band are wrapping up the final show of their latest tour, in a tiny, dirty dive bar somewhere in New York City. Smeared with glittery make-up and dripping sweat, Becky storms backstage, as her violent mood swings play havoc with all around her. She lashingly abuses her bandmates, her ex-husband Danny (Dan Stevens), and Something She’s beleaguered manager Howard (Eric Stoltz).

She fluctuates between obsessing over her baby daughter Tama and ignoring her completely. She consults with her personal shaman for spiritual guidance, which only seems to make her more intense. Washed up and strung out, Becky finally collapses and vomits all over the floor. Welcome to writer/director Alex Ross Perry‘s uncompromising vision of rock ‘n’ roll.

Over the next two vignettes, we’re faced with more of Becky’s wave of destruction, as her unpredictable behaviour pushes her bandmates to the point of absolute exhaustion. Her long-suffering mother (a brief but powerful performance from Virginia Madsen) is also subjected to her daughter’s vitriolic wrath, as are an up-and-coming girl group The Akergirls (played by Cara Delevigne, Ashley Benson, and Dylan Gelula), who foolishly believe Becky will help their career reach new heights. In the film’s final segments, sobriety offers Becky the chance at redemption, but only if she’s humble enough to own her mistakes.

With a running time of two hours and 15 minutes, Her Smell becomes somewhat of an endurance test for audiences; one that may prove simply too exhausting for some. Like a punk-rock version of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), sequences are often portrayed in almost real-time, with Perry and cinematographer Sean Price Williams consistently utilising handheld cameras to film the actors in tight close-ups.

Entirely meaning to antagonise its audience, Perry’s outlandish style is necessarily and purposely confronting, forcing us to become unwitting voyeuristic spectators to Becky’s reign of terror. When the action is backstage in claustrophobic dressing rooms, there’s simply nowhere for anyone to escape, creating a constant atmosphere of cinematic anxiety and tension that reaches points of unbearable torture. Williams’ wild camera movements are dizzying and chaotic, working in perfect harmony with the unpredictable and erratic behaviour of our protagonist (or should that be antagonist?).

What makes this difficult experience entirely endurable and worthy of your patience is Moss’ electric, infuriating, and, ultimately, empathetic performance. In the hands of a lesser actor, Becky would have easily become too insufferable to bear. Make no mistake, she is unbearably frustrating and offputting for most of this film. However, the always reliable Moss finds the deep-seated pain within her character, gifting us with a layered performance that’s rather breathtaking. Every chaotic act is Becky’s desperate cry for help, with harrowing fear and despair bursting from Moss’ evocative eyes, even in the midst of consistently committing hurtful acts against those she clearly loves.

But it’s in the film’s final act that Moss’ performance reaches another level. Living in quiet seclusion, her wild demeanour is gone, as she attempts a new life of sobriety. Desperate to make amends and regain the love of those she longs for, Becky is forced to reexamine her past behaviour, offering Moss the chance to dig deep for some deeply touching reconciliation scenes, overflowing with heart and humility. In the film’s most emotional scene, Becky sings Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” (in its entirety, no less) as a piano lullaby to her young daughter. Simple in construction, but powerful in execution, it’s a dynamite moment that’s one of the most beautiful things you’ll see on screen this year.

While Her Smell is a perfect portrait of a lead singer in a downward spiral, it fails to properly examine the supporting players around her. The narrative consistently focuses its spotlight squarely on Becky, and rightly so. However, it’s hard to connect with those who suffer from her actions when the writing refuses to give dimensions to their characters or offer the actors anything to do but constantly react to Becky’s antics. Madsen leaves the most impression, as the mother who crushingly can’t save her rock star daughter from herself, in a sympathetic performance that leaves you wanting more.

The film also falters by refusing to show Becky at her best and brightest. Instead, we’re left to accept she was a goddess of rock ‘n’ roll by reputation alone. The Akergirls fawn over their idol as if she’s the second coming of Jesus, but these scenes fall flat, given we’re entirely unaware of how and why she came to claim this legendary status. When Something She finally return to the stage, the result is far from the glorious comeback we’ve been expecting over the two hours which precede it, in a performance that’s disappointingly unexceptional. The narrative is riddled with clichés expected of the music industry introspection genre, hitting beats and tropes we’ve seen a hundred times before.

Regardless, it’s Moss’ sublime and captivating performance which saves Her Smell from being a total stinker (sorry, it had to be done). We know Moss is a performer who throws herself into every role, but her commitment here is downright stunning and worth the price of admission alone. Longer than it ever needed to be, the final product is rather arduous and taxing, but perhaps that’s entirely the point. Rockstars live an exhausting life of excess and often pay the price. Clearly, Perry wants you to feel as fatigued as they do.



Her Smell plays as part of the Sydney Film Festival and will arrive in Australian cinemas July 3. For more information and tickets, head HERE.