HER SMELL (2019, Alex Ross Perry)
At one point in the second act, Elisabeth Moss turns towards her prey and glares, eyes hunting, while she stalks forward almost licking her lips with anticipation of the meat she’s about to devour. It’s such an effective prowl that when Eric Stoltz compares her, ten minutes later, to a lioness, it comes off as redundant.
Moss’s performance is everything to this movie — it’s a huge, chewy, brave, show-stopping star turn that Perry asks a lot of. He gets it. Not only is Moss pretty much the center of every scene; she also has to carry the burden of being a believable rock star with such gravitational force that lamb after lamb is sucked into her orbit, despite every wicked barb unleashed from her filthy gob doing its best to repel. She gets a lot of clever one-liners and handles them with grace, but even the clangers of dialogue that pop up every once in a while (“suckling at the teats of my success!”) are no obstacle for her. It might be the most ferocious acting I’ve seen on screen since David Thewlis in NAKED, and those who know me will realize that’s about as high as praise gets.
Structurally, this is surprising and impressive — Perry breaks it up into five clean, real-time acts that last 20-30 minutes each. If you don’t know this going in, the first one is a disorienting, seemingly never-ending backstage nightmare. Finally when act two begins in the recording studio, you almost expect its half-hour barrage. The third sequence can only go downhill from there and ends in a literal curtain close. All three of these acts are shot with a swirling camera in constant close-up, almost nauseating with restlessness and colored like the cracking old paint of a stale punk club, lit with fluorescent-sucking, low-ceiling drabness. It’s form following content, an off-putting visual style wrestling with its horrifying protagonist. But it all pays off with act four, the beginning of possible redemption, where Perry locks his camera down with placid contentment, bathing Moss with backlit sun and even providing the first (and only) exterior shot of the entire movie. It’s here when things slow down enough to let Moss play a piano solo to her daughter, stripping Bryan Adams’s “Heaven” down to an aching confession, desperation to connect dripping off the screen. Scene of the year so far, I think.
And part of what makes this towering movie so great is its refusal to send big messages — it has an addiction/rock bottom/redemption plotline we’ve seen far too often, complete with the foreshadowings of death and a cute little girl to jerk tears. But it never uses those clichés as a shortcut to proselytize. This isn’t a soapbox about awful people. It’s a depiction of a tortured artist that doesn’t pull punches or manipulate sympathies. It shows us a period of the 1990s when pop-punk girl bands like Elastica, Veruca Salt, and L7 could be on the cover of Rolling Stone, because guitars, bass, and drums still sold out clubs. And it reveals just how much human beings are always performing, whether a camera is there or not. Thank goodness Perry and DP Sean Price Williams brought their A-game camerawork to this one, to capture Elisabeth Moss becoming a monstrous star, playing a monster who used to be a star, always performing.