Stories about following your dreams have been told many times in film. These can either be extremely inspirational or they can find themselves getting stuck in a strange tug-of-war between passion and addiction. They can border between a Disney fairy-tale or a twisted psychological thriller. Both are about chasing your dreams and the problems that can come with it, but let’s just say they differ in the problems that they show and the outcome these problems may lead to. Films that choose to take a psychological rather than magical look into passion and desire aren’t typically known for ending with colourful celebrations and a cheerful sing-a-long. Her Smell begs to differ.
Her Smell undeniably aims to focus on the psyche of its protagonist in the aftermath of a dream – a dream, or what seems more like a nightmare, that has already come true. When the focus point is a character who leads to their own downfall, there has to be an emotional connection there. There has to be something that the viewers can empathise with. If there isn’t, you’re pretty much just taking them on a pointless journey that won’t result in fear, sadness or happiness – it will only result in disappointment. This is why films focusing on obsession and the dangers that come with it such as Black Swan (2010), Whiplash (2014) and Vox Lux (2018) start at a point where the character is innocent and simply has an end goal in mind. This allows us to see the best possible version of this character, therefore making their self-destruction even more emotionally evoking when it finally does happen. It makes the viewer feel like they are more involved with the character because they ultimately went on the journey with them. Where Her Smell differs is that its starting point is right bang in the middle of the chaos other films would count on building up to. It sounds like a recipe for disaster; if they’ve already shown us what we usually wait for, why would we stick around? How is showing us the worst version of a character before anything else going to make us care about her? But revealing vulnerability right off the bat does not have to be the only way to establish a connection between a character and the viewer, it’s just the easy way.
Her Smell, directed by Alex Ross Perry, is a story about a female musician whose life is practically crumbling around her. When we are first introduced to Becky Something (Elizabeth Moss) she is playing on stage alongside her band members Marielle (Agyness Deyn) and Ali (Gayle Rankin) of Something She. From her performance alone we can tell that she is very talented and we can tell that she is largely admired because of the reaction from the crowd. We are then taken backstage with the band and it is revealed to us that Becky has a baby, she isn’t really concerned with her baby and is more concerned with her ex and who he’s dating. This doesn’t exactly make her feel likeable to us but instead unveils her to be selfish and incompetent. The more the scene continues the clearer it becomes that Becky is under the influence of drugs. Not only can you tell this through her strange actions, but the sound is very wallowing and gives off a sense of illusion, almost giving us an insight as to how Becky feels: spaced out and not in control. As this scene goes on it only gets more hectic and Becky starts to show mood swings, causing havoc around her. She is disrespectful and abuses both her band mates and the father of her child. When it comes to her baby Tama, while she shows no interest at first she is suddenly infatuated with her and she keeps drifting in and out of how she feels towards her affectionately – showing us how emotionally unaware this character actually is. She seeks spiritual advice from her own personal shaman and this only seems to make matters worse for everyone involved. The effects the drugs have on her become more and more apparent by every waking moment. She eventually collapses with her baby in hand and vomits all over the floor, resulting in the climax of a very uneventful yet highly stressful scene. So, there you have it. This is your main character. This is the character that you’re supposed to care about for another hour. Good first impressions, right?
The cracks within the band are then further shown in the next scene, when we see them in the studio trying to make new music. It’s clear there is a lot of tension between the members, and Becky seems to be the root cause of this. Ali storms out of the room in frustration after telling Becky “I took care of this band while you took care of yourself”, once again furthering the rhetoric of Becky’s selfish tendencies. Marielle stays with Becky but it’s no secret to us as viewers that she would rather not be there dealing with her. Later, a group of younger women come into the studio and it very quickly becomes apparent that they are going to be Something She’s replacement in the wake of their inevitable meltdown. Naturally, Becky doesn’t like this, and when she first sees them she looks angry. This is exactly what we would expect from Becky at this point – who we think is nothing more than a selfish, fame-hungry rock-star who considers no one else in her actions – but something changes. When Becky meets the girls there is a look in her eyes, not of anger, but of sadness. These girls are all healthy, happy and excited about what the future holds. When she is looking at them she is reflecting on the person she used to be, before fame swallowed her up and spat her back out again. This little moment really changes how we see Becky and reveals an entirely new side to her. On top of this, Marielle still hasn’t left yet, even when Becky is treating her like a piece of trash, showing that she cares deeply for Becky and wants to make sure she is okay despite all of the stress she has caused her. This once again adds onto the feeling that we are wrong about Becky; if she were the horrible person that we have all envisioned then why would people care so passionately about her and why would they be going out of their way to deal with her erratic mood swings and dangerous behaviour? Perhaps instead of being selfish, inconsiderate and nasty, she is a character that simply has a passion but got lost in all of the vices within it. Maybe she isn’t angry and malicious, but instead confused and scared. Maybe instead of everyone being a victim of her presence, she is a victim of her own addiction.
The next scene shows the inevitable destruction that everything has been building up to. Becky is very late to a show and everyone seems exhausted with her repetitive behaviour. When she finally arrives she is unsurprisingly strung out and acting out of the ordinary. She again creates chaos for everyone around her and while doing so looks completely lost. Eventually she goes out to the stage but because of how messed up she is she falls off it face first and ultimately has to be carried out. This was the moment everybody has been trying to avoid; everyone knew that it was going to happen but they were just trying to fight it off for as long as possible. Ali tells Becky “this show is exhausting, and I’ve seen it way too many times to stick around for the finale” in regards to Becky’s life. Her fans are no longer cheering in admiration, but instead glare with a look of concern and disgust. Her band mates are no longer looking at her with frustration, but instead with sympathy. Not only is this the downfall of Becky as a musician, but this is the downfall of Becky as a person.
We are very softly transitioned into calmness as it then cuts forward to Becky trying to better herself. What started off as the screeching of a guitar is now the sound of a boiling kettle. The noise of people screaming and echoing through a large building transitions to the complete silence and emptiness of an isolated cottage. Becky is now sober and has been fighting off her addictions for a while. The difference between her in this scene compared to the first time we see her is massive. Her daughter, who we first see as a baby, is now a lot older, and she finally looks ecstatic and wholeheartedly happy to see her. They experience soft and tender moments together, just as she does with Marielle. Her and Marielle discuss everything that happened and everything they lost. Moss brilliantly captures the regret and despair in Becky’s eyes; all she ever wanted to do was perform, but in the midst of it she became lost within herself and hurt everyone she loves in the process. This scene is so heart-breaking because it focuses completely on the vulnerability of a character at such a raw level that you can’t help but feel for her and just want her to experience happiness. Thus, a character that was originally introduced to us as the villain of the story has become a symbol of heroism. The final scene of Her Smell shows us a Something She reunion, but this time Becky is the best version of herself, and there is nothing more satisfying to see as a viewer. When film typically demonstrates that the only way to engage in a psychological story about addiction is by presenting a downfall that you can watch in suspense, Her Smell proves that these stories can be told backwards and the craving for a fitting conclusion will still be present. What started as a limitless nightmare ends in the colourful celebration and sing-along that we never thought was possible. Not exactly a fairy-tale, but equally as inspiring.
While all of the scenes above may sound uneventful for the most part, the techniques used by Alex Ross Perry make them some of the most stressful I have ever witnessed. He takes you into the mind of his protagonist in such an unparalleled way, creating claustrophobia that you feel in your chest and sounds that echo in your ears, with a lack of control so prominent you can almost touch it. He manages to convey anxiety through a lens in an original way; in times of rush or panic the camera never stops rolling, the lights never stop flashing and the crowd never stops roaring. It feels like you are stuck in a never-ending nightmare. The scenes are all relatively long too. This allows us as viewers to feel more involved with what is happening and understand Becky better as a character. Instead of seeing various clips perfectly constructed through a lens, we are seeing all the ugly parts of the character too, and that which would otherwise be considered pointless. We know that Becky doesn’t particularly fit into the mould of a ‘lovable’ character, but through the techniques used by Perry we can really resonate with her, the pounding of her chest and the pressure she feels. All we want is to escape this nightmare and that’s all we want for her to. It is very easy to make us love a character dripping in innocence who makes a few bad choices rooted in passion. Where the challenge comes in is to show us a character at their worst so effectively, so that we are holding on to seeing them at their best. It goes from shame, embarrassment and anarchy to authenticity, empathy and calmness. It goes from pure exhaustion to a sense of relief.