A low thrum runs throughout much of Her Smell. It’s part of the Keegan DeWitt’s unsettling score, but it could easily be mistaken for diegetic sound design, or even just the actual noise picked up in the low-ceilinged space under a rock venue. It starts out sounding like guitars and drums and screaming crowds filtered through several walls, but soon starts to sound like the churn of machinery. You can imagine gargantuan gears, like the ones that propelled the Titanic, on the other side of the grimy green room where Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss) terrorizes her bandmates, handlers, and anyone else who dares come within 20 feet of her. Over time, it occurs to you that the sound may only be there for Becky.
In five scenes spread across roughly a decade, Alex Ross Perry’s film documents the fall and rise of Something She, the fictional ’90s riot grrrl punk band for which Becky is the swaggering, tongue-wagging, bottle-smashing figurehead. Scenes of their ascendancy are all shown via home-movie footage, as Becky, bassist Marielle (Agyness Deyn) and drummer Ali (Gayle Rankin), still bright-eyed and giddy, freak out over their first Spin cover, their first gold record (which they promptly destroy). These clips come as welcome punctuation between the long, more or less real-time scenes that make up the body of the film. Perry’s film depicts Becky and the band’s fame as a kind of very long plastic playground tunnel slide, something windowless and garishly colored that one just hurtles down uncontrollably until it finally spits you out in the white light of day.
That light takes its time coming. For the almost unbearably tense first hour and a half or so, cinematographer Sean Price Williams (who captured neon-tinged anxiety so well in last year’s Good Time) veers around the backstage areas and recording booths in which the band slowly implodes. The first scene, at a club show early in the band’s decline, starts with a high-energy cover of the Only Ones’ “Another Girl, Another Planet,” giving us a glimpse of the band when everything is working and everything is fun. As soon as they leave the stage, that incessant thrum comes in and the cohesiveness ceases as Becky starts downing drink after drink. She stalks the halls looking for the next person to torment, an oversized Phantom of the Opera T-shirt draped on her figure, and it seems not entirely accidental: her narcissism and insecurity and substance abuse turns her into a toxic ghoul that haunts the theater, especially as the band’s finances start to take a turn.
Later in the film Becky opportunistically trades up her exasperated bandmates for a trio of newer, fresher faces (Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson, and Dylan Gelula) and she runs her hands over their fresh faces and even more freshly dyed hair, practically salivating at the idea of bending new people, who aren’t sick of her shit yet, to her will. In so many ways, Becky exhibits all the traits of an abuser — manipulating those around her without even thinking about it. But the faces of the people she makes miserable — particularly the excellent Deyn and Rankin as her two original bandmates — are not people cowering from her out of fear but people exasperated that her performance, on and off the stage, has derailed their lives as well as hers. In the first scene, Becky’s old flame Danny (Dan Stevens) brings their infant child to see her and get either custody or divorce papers signed — and the introduction of a baby could have easily turned into a metaphorical Last Bastion of Purity to be tossed around the scene like a hot potato (see: any number of cinematic babies in peril in the last year or so). But what the existence of that baby does to Becky isn’t metaphorical at all — nothing so neat as redemption or proof of character. And Her Smell is all the more complex for that.
Much of Her Smell, especially these backstage scenes, border on unintelligible, with numerous exchanges getting lost in the chaos. I found this to be incredibly, teeth-grindingly effective — this is a thoroughly subjective depiction of mental illness and substance abuse, and the accurate relay of information often takes a backseat in the throes of such a state. Some may not have the stomach for it, and yet Moss’s oscillating, energy-devouring performance and the real-time composition of Perry’s scenes make it almost impossible to look away. But tellingly, the more anxiety-inducing scenes come at the end of the film, when Becky has clawed her way to a hard-won sobriety, and there’s suddenly far more to lose than there ever was in those halcyon days bouncing around in label offices for the camera. In a climate in which more and more creators are compelled to discuss and depict disordered states onscreen, Her Smell is a rare project that feels holistic enough to actually capture such a state, not just refract it through an audacious formal exercise. The thrum goes away, but we spend the rest of the film anxiously fearing its return.