By the time Alex Ross Perry arrived at Golden Exits, his novelistic style of cinema seemed to have reached an impasse. So staid and stylised that it bordered on self-parody, Golden Exits felt like a dead end, demanding a radical reconfiguration of Perry’s aesthetic and worldview. Perry provides something of that gesture in Her Smell, a fictional musical biopic starring Elisabeth Moss as Becky Something, the lead singer of Something She, a girl band that rose to prominence in the 1990s. Somewhere between Courtney Love and Sleater-Kinney, Becky converges the intensities of goth, punk and riot grrl into a musical statement that is continually described as groundbreaking, uncompromising and revolutionary, although we hear very little of it in the film itself. Instead, Perry starts with a performance by Something She, then moves into a series of vignettes that trace Becky’s subsequent breakdown and rehabilitation, as well as Something She’s relationship with Akergirls, the next generation of the music that Something She helped to pioneer. While the film dabbles in all kinds of musical subculture, the overarching style is goth, just as Perry’s vision recalls The Crow more than any musical biopic, especially in its determination to be a goth experience, or a goth event, rather than merely depicting or imagining one, which often makes it feel like the record of a live concert, albeit from the perspective of the singers rather than the audience.
For that reason, the most memorable two vignettes are those that depict Becky in the spaces immediately around and beneath the concert stage. In the first vignette we see Becky moments after she has come offstage, and in the third vignette we see her moments before she is due to go on stage. The first vignette sets the scene for the rest of the film, taking us through a series of spaces and situations that are immeasurably more visceral than the performance we have just seen. During this sustained sequence, there is very little in the way of regular narrative or character development, as Perry instead immerses us in the occult ambience of goth music, and the spaces around goth music, which are scored to the submerged feedback emanating from the stage above the dressing rooms and bowels of the theatre, whose labyrinthine corridors and dim rooms form the backdrop for this nightmarish vision. In Perry’s hands, Becky’s performance is a mere precursor to witchcraft, leading him to shoot her like a character from a horror film – a presence rather than a person, who forces everyone to traverse a macabre force field, a swathe of dissonant noise, to even approach her, while warping and distorting sound and space when anyone comes too close.
To that end, Perry opts for frenetic editing, dissonant noise and abrasive close-ups, along with an oblique relation between editing and dialogue. While Becky’s performance might have ended before this first scene occurs, her occult energy is just peaking – an energy that she channels through her resident shaman, who she takes everywhere, and who she now commands to ensure the safety of her new baby, who is passed from hand to hand during this opening sequence as the epicentre of all Perry’s fascination with the dark media emanating around the spectacle and subcultures of goth music. Much of this sequence reminded me of the particularly plastic role that children, and babies, played in 80s horror, as well as the way their plasticity could render mothers elfin and childlike in turn, as Becky communes with her baby so radically that the two seem to become one, converging into a plosion of feminine energy that is continually repelling the masculine and managerial forces that are attempting to contain and socialize it. Only the shaman is permitted access to this inner circle, yet even he is reminded, by Becky, that “you saw a prophecy when we met in the other place: you said the child would be my downfall.” As the scene becomes more stress-inducing and nauseous to watch, all noise starts to collapse into white noise, like the dirty vocals of heavy metal, abstracting Becky, and Moss, into a whirling dervish of energy that seems capable of eviscerating every filmic ambition Perry might place in its path, until the film seems on the verge of consuming itself, and vanishing into its own vortical intensity.
In doing so, Her Smell beautifully captures the radical mission of riot grrl, and feminist goth – to insist upon forms of continuity that bypassed patriarchal common-sense, and the ways in which that common sense manifested itself as tasteful modes of character and narrative. Perry evokes both the urgency and the fragility of this mission, suggesting that riot grrl, in particular, depended upon building a residuum of antisocial energy, and than channeling it in just the right way, or at least for long enough before it became self-consuming. While Becky manages to channel her rage into the opening number, she never quite controls or contains it over the remainder of the film, since by the time she performs in the last vignette she has been relegated to feminist history, and is performing as a canonized act, rather than part of the contemporary musical moment. Rather than present Becky as a performer, Her Smell imagines her as a guardian of rage, and a vessel for rage, much as her main output – like that of the film – consists in ensuring that this rage never entirely consumes her, but that it remains available for artistic contemplation, however notionally or tangentially she might remain connected to the music industry, as her fame starts to wane.
Rather than trying to escape his novelistic, writerly and theatrical style, Perry thus elevates and intensifies it to an incantatory pitch here, which is perhaps why Her Smell is more like witnessing a ritual, rite or ceremony, than a fictional film in the conventional sense. Even – or especially – during its most convulsive moments, the events have an inexorable sense of being staged and orchestrated in advance, thanks in part to the baroque aphorisms that quickly devolve “dialogue” into so many chants, screeds and spells. For a moment, the manic-demonic intensity made me wonder whether Moss was channeling some of her scientological experience, or whether it’s simply Perry himself who is so keen to present her as a kind of high priestess, the kind of hyperbolised matriarch that cropped up time and again in 80s horror, where she was often used as a cipher for a new prosthetic regime that disrupted the regular patriarchal linearities of home, hearth and reproductive futurity. Even in the second and fourth vignettes, which present Becky in a recording studio, and in her home, this sense of plasticity remains, giving her silence – and her eventual recovery – an even eerier valency than her most flamboyantly occult moments on the fringes of the stage.
The most extreme of these moments preoccupies the third vignette, which sees Becky’s vortical energy getting the better of her, and preventing her going on stage. Perry’s soundscape reaches its apex here, situating us in the murky lower bandwidth of a bootleg record, as if all the murk, glitch and distortion of the live musical experience had been siphoned off and transformed into a spectacle and space in and of itself. After arriving an hour after she is supposed to go on as the support act for Akergirls, Becky wanders around the dressing-room, speaking to her own camera, as if she has bypassed music to pass into a solipsistic dark media of her own, one so occult that it doesn’t need an audience (or permits her to be audience and performer all in one). In the climax of this extraordinary sequence, Becky starts to speak in tongues after attacking her former bandmates, while bleeding profusely from the face, and continuing to consult her shaman about the best way to understand and arrange the ceremony that nobody else is able to parse or properly escape.
As with Queen of Earth, Becky – and Moss – feel as if they are perpetually on the cusp of a supernatural apotheosis, sending waves of escalating feedback through whatever space they happen to be occupying. So occult is Becky’s presence that it seems to capture the intensity of an incipient terror attack, or embody the inchoate awareness of terror that has spread through crowds at concerts and musical festivals over the last couple of years. And while the final vignette may follow Becky, now sober, as she arrives at her old stomping-ground for a comeback performance, this sense of incipient supernatural terror never really goes away. Trying to stay away from her old life while channeling it enough to make a comeback, the closer Becky comes to redemption, the closer she feels to this Medea-like apotheosis. Preceding her comeback performance with a séance, she abruptly vanishes, leaving the other participants uneasy (“What did we just do?”) before they find her standing, Carrie-like, in an unnatural position on the fringes of the stage – the place where her music has always taken its most visceral and violent inspiration, and where her music has perpetually been overtaken by those very forces that make it so vital and so influential.
As a result, Becky starts to dissociate as she steels herself for her comeback performance, while the soundscape of the film grows more chaotic and dissonant as she approaches the stage once more. It as if the concert is a rite that has to be served and survived, a rite that makes all the other characters feel half-realised, blinded by Becky’s Medea-like presence. While she manages to briefly contain all that energy in a song, she has to leave the venue – and her old life – immediately to prevent it destroying her all over again, getting out of the nightclub – titled Her Smell – since it’s clear that she can’t survive it any longer, and could never fully survive it. The result is a testament to the negativity of 90s rock, the occult energy and dark media that allowed it to come to the very brink of consuming itself – and sometimes to consume itself – in the hope of breaking through the forms of continuity, and realism, that were dictated by the world it set itself against. Rather than pay homage to music, Perry testifies to a negativity so great it absorbs the music it creates, turning the space around that music into a black hole capable of destroying or transforming those who come too close – exactly the event horizon needed for a director looking to restore his style.