Even the camera seems to be frightened of her. It bobs and weaves nervously around imploding grunge rock goddess Becky Something, as if ducking the torrents of verbal abuse and manic waves of drug-fueled disruption that erupt from our heroine while she tears through green rooms and studio spaces in writer-director Alex Ross Perry’s “Her Smell.” As played by Elisabeth Moss in a go-for-broke performance that leaves her guts smeared all over the floor, Becky’s a panicked, unbelievably unpleasant star in decline, burning bridges until she runs out of matches.
How much time you’ll want to spend in what her friends and family ruefully refer to as “Beckytown” will probably vary. “Her Smell” is an assaultive evening out at the movies, and I heard reports of walkouts at last weekend’s IFFBoston screening. Perry traps us tight inside these cramped spaces while she rages, conjuring dark laughs and queasy memories for anyone who’s spent any serious time around addicts.
The deliberately destabilizing cinematography (by legend-in-the-making Sean Price Williams) refuses to provide any establishing shots to allow us to get our bearings. Characters stream in and out of scenes, flowing back and forth on multiple planes of action in an elegantly orchestrated chaos, with editor Robert Greene’s off-tempo cutting denying us any breathing room or relief. The insistent, coruscating bleats of Keegan DeWitt’s score provide a baseline of anxiety bubbling beneath all the interactions. Sometimes it feels like the movie itself is having a panic attack.
“Her Smell” snuffs out any remaining romantic notions you may have about rock star misbehavior. As a filmmaker Perry is fascinated by the entitlements inherent in the genius myth, and in many ways this picture serves as a distaff cousin to his brilliantly bitter 2014 comedy “Listen Up Philip.” That movie starred Jason Schwartzman as a hotshot young novelist mentored by an aging literary lion played by Jonathan Pryce, but the film was secretly more interested in Schwartzman’s long-suffering girlfriend (Moss, working a much quieter register) and Pryce’s distant daughter (Krysten Ritter) as they break away from the soul-sucking self-regard of these pitiful men. There are plenty of movies out there celebrating difficult artists. Perry makes films about the wreckage they leave in their wake.
And so the broken heart of “Her Smell” can be found in the bystanders, like Becky’s ex (Dan Stevens) who dances around her on pins and needles trying to collect child support, or the drummer (Gayle Rankin) she keeps forgetting she fired during blackouts. There’s a marvelous performance from Agyness Deyn as a bassist who finally finds her breaking point, and fine work from Amber Heard as a pop diva who in Becky’s mind committed an act of betrayal by becoming more famous than her. My favorite though might be the warm, understated turn from Eric Stoltz as a put-upon record company owner whose mortgage depends on his biggest star pulling it together.
Stoltz’s situation underscores just how many of these people rely on Becky for their livelihoods, which is why they’re OK with enabling her antics and turn a blind eye to monstrous behavior until it’s too late. When the movie starts her career is already collapsing — their European tour’s been canceled and there’s a poppier, more marketable trio on the rise at the label — so we don’t get to see any of the feel-good, top-of-the-charts ascendancy but boy, do we have a front row seat for the fall.
Until, after more than an hour of pounding away on your last nerve, “Her Smell” abruptly jumps ahead several years and chills the heck out. We’re in a quiet country house where a newly sober Becky is trying to put her life back together. After all the loud and grimy discombobulation of the previous scenes, the lengthy silences, still camera and natural light are intensely jarring — like we’re watching a different movie altogether, or the way the world can seem like a different planet when you’re not looking at it loaded. Bankrupt, alone and working her program, Becky Something is now back to being plain old Rebecca Adamcyzk, and the richly rewarding rest of “Her Smell” is spent watching her attempt to make amends with the mess that Becky left behind.
Moss is miraculous here, allowing us to see the wounded little girl inside the monster that terrorized us, and all the emotional scaffolding that held up her rock star persona. (There’s an astounding moment when she tries on the act again for a bit of banter and it’s like seeing someone wear an ill-fitting suit.) This movie, so ragged and rude in the early reels, becomes overtly and unabashedly sincere — boasting one beautiful, heartfelt reconciliation after another to a point where Moss actually performs a totally unironic and altogether lovely cover of a Bryan Adams song.
(Yes, Bryan Adams. I feel like this scene is a sequel to the poignant quotation from Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain” near the end of “Listen Up Philip.” The films speak to each other in interesting ways.)
Some folks have complained that the movie’s first hour is simply too much to take, but personally I don’t think the second half would work nearly as well were it not such a punishing journey to get there. By the time the film’s enormously cathartic closing concert sequence rolls around you really do feel like you’ve been to hell and back with these people, the emotional payoffs stay with you longer for being so intensely earned. “Her Smell” lingers.
“Her Smell” opens Friday, May 3 at the Somerville Theatre.
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