TIFF review: Her Smell

Elisabeth Moss goes all in as an out-of-control rock star in Alex Ross Perry's nightmarish backstage drama

HER SMELL PLAT D: Alex Ross Perry. U.S. 135 min. Sep 11, noon, TBLB 1 Sep 14, 9:15 pm, TBLB 1. See listing. Rating: NNNN

Our culture derides, fetishizes and capitalizes on out-of-control celebrities, but Ross Perry’s latest film challenges the audience to endure trainwreck behaviour like a member of the inner circle.

Elisabeth Moss stars as Becky Something, a fading grunge singer whose self-absorbed behaviour has downgraded her once bestselling trio from arena to club status. Over the first three claustrophobically filmed sections, Moss is a hurricane of cruelty, blood and vomit and Ross Perry and DP Sean Price Williams (shooting on 35 mm) film her backstage tirades at uncomfortably close-range, as if the camera is in the middle of its own tantrum right along side her. The effect is nightmarish.

Her bandmates (Agyness Deyn, Gayle Rankin), a group of proteges (Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson, Dylan Gelula), manager (Eric Stoltz) and mom (Virginia Madsen) are not spared invective but most manage to stick by Becky. The first three acts are pure chaos, with a soundtrack of low-level noise mingling with the dull roar of the audience outside the dressing room, contributing to a constant mood unfulfilled urgency. The sequences are lengthy and unfold in almost real time (this is anti-slow cinema but somehow the same effect is achieved) and you begin to wonder, Who is this person and how did she get like this? And why are all these people still there?

The final two acts switch to contemplative mode in a jarring tonal shift. By keeping the acts contained to one location save for interstitial flash-backs shot in home movie style, Perry almost removes all outside (i.e. industry) influence in order to sharpen the personal stakes. Moss goes all in from the jump – you have no idea what she’s going to do next but can guess it’s probably not going to be pretty. Deyn is equally good as a bandmate who both empathizes with and reviles Becky’s behaviour. The glamour-grunge wardrobe, hair, makeup and art direction are suitably DIY and spot-on, though not all the relationships feel as flushed out as they could be (Madsen is underused) and the original songs are slight in comparison to the behind-the-scenes insanity.

We often revere women like Becky Something because they reject oppressive societal norms, but Her Smell brilliantly – and I would say, empathetically – shows the personal toll of the perversion of punk idealism and what happens when subcultures are subsumed into the wider culture.

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