Alex Ross Perry's "Her Smell" Reeks of Toxic Brilliance
Our current celebrity culture seems to place more emphasis on promoting toxic personality types over people who actually have talent to offer the world. From scandal laden influencers to the current U.S. president, there seems to be some deep-seated collective desire to not only orbit human trainwrecks, but to reward them with money and attention in hopes they’ll continue to act out publicly. While we like to think that the nature of celebrity worship is strictly voyeuristic, the truth is toxic people rise to the top because others put them there. Celebrities are like human slot machines, we pull the lever and cross our fingers for something spectacular to happen until one of us is spent. In Her Smell (2019), Alex Ross Perry perfectly depicts that push-and-pull ecosystem by showcasing the strange allure of a celebrity whose toxicity overshadows her talent.
Elisabeth Moss stars as Becky Something, the lead singer of a 90’s punk rock girl group called Something She. Becky’s band would fit in perfectly on a billing with Hole, The Slits, or Bikini Kill, while her personality exists somewhere in-between Courtney Love doing her best impersonation of Dennis Hopper reciting Shakespeare. In short, Becky is a mess. When we first meet her she’s flaming out hardcore and publicly–lost in a haze of drinking, drugs, superstition, and performance. She has a bogus “shaman” who follows her around performing rituals backstage, while she’s busy spewing tipsy venom at whoever is within striking distance. She’s what unchecked fame hath wrought, and her bandmates Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) and Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin) are at their breaking point. Not to mention her weary manager Howard (Eric Stoltz) and her exhausted ex-husband Danny (Dan Stevens), the latter of whom is stuck toting around their infant daughter while she indulges in excess.
Her Smell is told in five distinct acts, and the audience is led, like Dante, down through Something She’s private hell and then up again through Becky’s attempts at redemption. All the while, the film’s brilliant soundtrack of deadened, indiscernible ambient noise thumps away; it’s the sound of backstage anticipation and the promise of something exciting or terrible emerging at any moment. At her highest highs, Becky’s a brilliant punk rock songwriter who knows exactly how to tap into something both lyrical and primal through music. At her lowest lows, she’s messed up out of her mind, cutting herself in front of a documentary crew while telling her mother not to undermine her authority in public. Yet despite this, there's a great and terrible brilliance to being that unhinged. Becky’s emotional fluidity is the root of her irresistible lure, even beyond her catchy tunes. She taps into that deep, secret desire everybody has to not give a fuck–there’s a power in being that open, it transmutes vulnerability into ferocity.
But Becky’s is what I like to call a “Don Quixote of Scum.” You’ll find the type in a range of films from Withnail and I to Il Sorpasso; they’re quixotic characters who endear themselves to others through their ability to act on their impulses. Yet they cannot function without holding others hostage to their own egotistical neediness. Becky is portrayed as an effective bandleader as far as music writing goes, but she only seems to know how to lead through emotional manipulation. She abuses her bandmates to their breaking points, and then immediately shifts to complimenting them and telling them she can’t do it without them. She gets away with it too, because her toxicity is erroneously accepted as an inevitable part of her talent.
When Becky finally manages to alienate all of her bandmates, she immediately latches on to the next young blood that comes along. After Mari walks out on her during a wasted recording session that goes hours overlong, Becky immediately embraces the next people she lays eyes on. In this case, it’s a younger girl band who had booked the recording space called the Akergirls. Lucky for her, when she asks them to collaborate they jump at the chance. They idolize Becky Something so much that they too dismiss all obvious red flags as just part of her potential magic.
But like all strongmen leaders, the truth is Becky is just as lost as the rest of them, if not ten-fold more. Her big secret is she has no real control over her own talent because she has no control of herself. Becky’s the human embodiment of a room full of monkeys and typewriters that manages to miraculously write a line of Shakespeare–and deep down, she knows it. Becky’s been faking it for so long that her own theatricality has taken the place of any real substance. By the time we meet her, she’s at a point where she’s manically hoping that whatever tumbles out of her mouth may eventually stick enough that she can call it divine inspiration. In a moment of sober clarity, after a hellish break down in the previous act, she confesses to Mari that she doesn’t actually know who she is without her band persona. Her addictions to substances and fame were just a way to fill a void in herself she never wanted to face. She's the opposite of focus and control; she's just unhinged chaos that occasionally lands a bullseye. Because of this, she finds herself alone. Beyond her bandmates abandoning her, both Becky’s husband and daughter are largely estranged from her because she’s such a burden to be around.
Though we can recognize toxic people a mile away, we’re all guilty of being drawn to them at one time or another. The truth is that trainwrecks are attractive because they don't suffer from the same limitations the rest of us do. They scratch an itch for us, acting out on all of the impulses we wish we could express and taking the burden of the consequences too. But that’s where the codependency develops–we both enable each other. I think of Amy Winehouse, a celebrity whose artistic genius was eventually less celebrated than her public flameouts. She all but committed suicide in public while the world goaded her on, hoping for that next album as much as the paparazzi photos of her bloodied and crying. Between her and the public, it’s hard to tell who was more toxic to whom. In Her Smell, Becky’s represents the worst of art and artists–grasping desperately for a hold on a world that, in turn, is foolishly trying to cling to her for inspiration. It’s a double-blind flame out; paradoxically, it’s that very insecurity and lack of self-control which both draws people to somebody like Becky and pushes them away at the same time. Feel free to latch on to her shooting star, but don’t be surprised when you crash and burn with her.
(PS - I wholeheartedly recommend you see this film in theaters if you can. It’s brilliantly acted, directed, and shot, plus the soundtrack is spot on!)