SFF REVIEW: Her Smell
Her Smell - Sydney Film Festival 2019
Reviewed by Nicholas Brady
At this point, no one could dispute Elizabeth Moss being one of the greatest actors working today; her roles in Madmen and The Handmaid’s Tale alone illustrate this point. In Her Smell, Moss cements her acting prowess as Rebecca Something: the leader of Something She; a fictitious world-renown punk-rock girl band who is far beyond her breaking point.
The film opens upon the band closing their final show of what may very well be their final tour whereupon we are thrust backstage and into the insanity that is Rebecca Something’s world. This acts as the first of the film’s five scenes; lasting around 30 minutes each, with a short flashback to juxtapose the band of today with that of yesterdays. For the most part, these enormous scenes maintain a level of extreme tension and mania that more than justifies the director/writer Alex Ross’ brave structural choice.
What is less brave and more curious however, is the original soundtrack performed on-screen by Becca’s band. For a world-famous punk-rock group who in their past had ‘sold out arenas’, their punk tunes sound an awful lot like edgeless pop-rock. Each of the five scenes contains at least two minutes of these tracks, and each of the songs were nothing if not boring. In contrast was the score composed by Keegan DeWitt; its psychedelic collection of chimes, synth pulses and deep thrumming has become a top contender for my favourite of the year.
For its first two scenes, the film challenges audiences with a masterfully directed in-your-face look at an abuser and the decadence of her lifestyle. However, as the film steps into its third scene it fails to provide anything beyond what was seen before. Actions taken by Becca do little more than repeat instances of alienating those around her, seemingly serving naught but pad runtime. Suddenly, the films tone shifts entirely, and Her Smell’s problems develop further; it begins to conflict with its own themes.
Until its third act, Her Smell presents the image of an unforgivable abuser; Beccy is an unstable narcissist/drug addict/neglectful mother. She launches into unbridled rage, lashing out unjustly at others only to smother her victims with affection, reeling them back into her toxic sphere of influence. When focused upon this methodology of Beccy’s actions, the screenplay is at its best: as an unapologetic look at a protagonist nigh impossible to empathise with. This could have easily become too gruelling a watch if it were not for Agyness Deyn as Rebecca Something’s best friend and Dan Steven’s as her ex-boyfriend and the father to her child. These supporting turns convey the compassion and humanity the script fails to deliver on its own merit.
Suddenly the fourth scene begins, and we see a very different character. Ross discards his decision to prevent us from sympathising with our protagonist and now we are asked to do nothing but. We skip the true repercussions of her actions due to the film’s structure and as a result this new direction seems disingenuous and at odds with the themes and ideas clearly present in the first three scenes. Instead we are given simpler moral lessons about family and friends in addition of course to the reinforced knowledge that drugs are the real villain. Worse than this, despite the things that Becca had done to people across the film, when it came time for any of them to matter they were dismissed entirely. And with this, a nuanced perspective on victimisers and the people who love them simply vanished from sight, and the film becomes an apologetic tale about an abuser’s second chance.
None of this animosity however could mar the spectacular feat of cinematography; tight intimate handheld shots keep us trapped in these spaces to the point of claustrophobia, only letting up at just the right moment to never let us fully disengage from the ongoing action. Whatever could be said about its botched narrative, we are blessed with an array of captivating one takes that never let the film be anything less a visual spectacular.
In the end, what pleasure is derived from the film sits within a near perfect first two scenes. Within these scenes enthralling cinematography pulls us disconcertingly close to Elizabeth Moss’s Oscar worthy performance, whilst an unforgettable score consistently soaks us in discomfort. Although these key factors initially more than overwhelm its flaws, a bloated runtime and a derailing of the film’s key ideas and themes drag Her Smell down long before the curtains close.
Sydney Film Festival
7 - 12 June 2019