Her Smell (2018)
Words by Hiba Akmal
Her Smell (2018)
A portrait of a turbulent punk-rock queen hearkening back to the 90's counter-cultural movement dismantling the macho-monopolisation of grunge music - aka cock rock. Moss's ability to swerve between extremes of volatility and vulnerability is uncanny and will embark the viewer on your own turbulent viewing experience.
Elizabeth Moss is unhinged and unbearable in ‘Her Smell' (2018). Well for the first three acts anyway. This is the actress’s third time cast in a central role by director Alex Ross Perry, and this time he mused, channeling the deranged joker in her own anarchic universe. ‘Her Smell’ pays tribute to the abrasive 90’s Feminist punk-rock movement - Riot Grrrl - fighting the macho monopolization of the punk-rock scene aka ‘cock rock’. It was the birthplace of the fanzine, an iconic tool of resistance, mobilizing fans and boycotting the mainstream media circuits (and now part of the eponym of the Marchioness magazine). Moss plays Becky Something, the volatile vocalist and star persona of the fictional lead riot grrrl band ‘Something She’. The movie does not take pains to make Becky a likable female lead, rather she is a narcissistic and insatiable bully who ravages both audience and characters alike. But that’s what I came to like about it. Once I had finished it.
Much of the reviews discussing the film center on Becky’s extreme dysfunction and Moss’s impeccable impersonation of it. They consider her penchant for dark and twisted roles and applaud her gift for bringing them immaculately to life. Joe Coscarelli from The New York Times praised her as a ‘patron saint of the beaten down and abused’.
The extremity of Becky’s dysfunction is certainly a spectacle that in shock and horror, compels you to watch on. But by the third act, I was questioning how much longer I too was going to participate in this absurd toleration of her insufferability. The initial arrest of Moss’s deliverance had worn off and I was growing impatient. When will Becky’s hubris satisfyingly slap her in the face? Backstage, Becky taunts and provokes fellow band members, ex-husband, and mother alike as she galivants around gleefully hurling abuse at all who cross her path. Nothing is sacred to her, not even her own daughter who she at one stage drops to the floor, collapsing in a drug-induced delirium, proceeding to roll over and eject vomit to her other side. Everyone in Becky’s presence is subject to her, or as they say - is shackled front row at the ‘Becky Show.’
And yet in the final two acts, shockingly I found myself rooting for her, feeling almost a sense of maternal protection for her confrontation with consequence. In act three we find a subdued Becky, coming up on one year of sobriety, now inhabiting a recluse and solitary existence. She is visited by her ex-husband with daughter Tama and former guitarist Mari. Tama is no longer an infant, now a young girl. Mari is married and expecting a child and Ali, too, is married and just released a new album with her husband - free from the sabotage of Becky’s narcissism. Life has clearly moved on from Something She. Becky meanwhile is alone and embroiled in the many lawsuits from the era of the Becky show. The chaos that assaulted us in the first three acts is here diffused by a still and reflective poignance. You may come to sympathize with Becky or at least mourn the irreversibility of damage once wrought. The film could have ended there.
Instead, we are returned to the murky backstages of Punk rock when Becky agrees to former producer, Eric Stoltz’s request for a Something She reunion concert, to celebrate 25 years of Paragon records. The parallels are unmistakable. In contrast to the mad rampage of the first act, Becky here is vulnerable and cautious. You hold your breath realizing her current stability is dangling on the precipice of relapse as she re-enters the corridors of her past, preparing to offer herself as ‘Becky Something’ to the world once more. After one riveting performance, she tells Stoltz ‘No.’ She doesn’t have it in her to give the audience the encore they are outside chanting for. She turns around, this time towards Tama, and the film dims on the image of Becky either maternally cradling her or seeking refuge in the sanctity of the mother-daughter embrace...
The second fanzine of Bikini Kill issued the Riot Grrl manifesto. Amongst other articles, it stated its mission to take over ‘the means of production’ in order for women to create their OWN meanings, because, as it explained ‘we don't wanna assimilate to someone else's (boy) standards of what is or isn't. Aside from reclaiming the male domination of the Punk rock scene, Riot Grrrl was essentially refuting the double standards of gender projected in music; ‘girl = dumb, girl = good, girl = weak.’ The embedded hypocrisy that affords men in general and male rock stars the wider orbit of acceptability for outrageous and outlandish behavior (just the quirk that comes with the territory) whilst simultaneously rebuking women for existing in the same spaces, scorning their legitimacy as artists and women.
In this sense, Her Smell aptly honors the demands of the movement by offering us not so much a plot propelled by events but a raw and uncensored portrait of a complex female artist that plays society’s own biases to provoke your awareness and appreciation.