Elisabeth Moss thrills as a strung-out rock star in Alex Ross Perrys tremendous, terribly titled new film
A bad title can be a debilitating handicap to even the best of films: if it makes you wince even to say the thing, its that much harder to get invested in watching it. This is a truth that has been learned the hard way by the new film from American independent writer-director Alex Ross Perry: a daring, grungily immersive and quite brilliantly acted character study that has been saddled, for reasons best known to Perry himself, with the buzz-killing moniker Her Smell.
Try telling people, as I have for several months now, that they should be looking out for a terrific film called Her Smell only to be greeted with grimacing, nose-wrinkling, her what? questions and often a swift change of subject. It hasnt courted much of a crowd: after premiering to strong reviews at the Toronto film festival a year ago, the film eventually secured a tiny release in the States, grossing just over $250,000. UK distributors were particularly slow to bite: finally, Her Smell (Signature, 15) is being released directly to video on demand on Monday, skipping a traditional cinema release. Im not saying that low profile is all down to the title the films abrasive and challenging in more substantial ways but it cant have helped.
In any case, I implore you to overlook the title, not the film, which is so hell-for-leather in its close-up study of a fictitious female rock star played with thrilling, strung-out bravado by Elisabeth Moss that you feel a little punch-drunk watching it. It shows up so many musical biopics in the Bohemian Rhapsody vein as the gutless cosplay exercises they are. In case youre wondering, the olfactory system plays no obvious role in the film, though you can pretty much imagine how Becky Something (Moss) smells as the film introduces her in a mood-swinging backstage frenzy of post-concert adrenaline: sweat, sex and substances, and not in a particularly inviting way.
Becky is the frontwoman of a popular all-girl punk band coming apart at the seams, mostly because shes coming apart herself. The way Moss plays her, as a whirligig of ego, anger, untended talent and self-loathing, makes Courtney Love look like Taylor Swift. Perrys film charts Beckys self-destruction, self-reckoning and tentative self-renewal in five kinetic, unstinting acts, with a kind of updated, pressed-to-the-glass John Cassavetes energy. At over two hours, its deep emotional payoff feels hard-won. Moss should be up for every award going at the years end; she almost certainly wont be.
Perry, for his part, is growing into one of American cinemas most adventurous, exciting young film-makers, even as UK distributors have largely gone off him. His excellent last film, the wistful but strychnine-laced New York ensemble piece Golden Exits another less than enticing title also went straight to streaming here.
Finally, while were considering the fates of festival films, this weeks column comes to you from the Venice film festival, where critics are swooning and/or arguing over such big autumn attractions as Todd Phillipss Joker and Noah Baumbachs Marriage Story. If you want a taste of the programmes less starry side, however, Venice has again teamed up with Festival Scope to launch the Sala Web, where a handful of this years sidebar entries are available to stream at home, for the equivalent of 4 each, until 19 September. Take a chance on Tunisian film The Scarecrows, an emotionally raw study of women escaping sex slavery on the Syrian front, or the intriguing, experimental Spanish memory piece Zumiriki. Theres every chance they wont turn up farther down the road.
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