Of all of the various American filmmakers who have emerged this century, one of the most fascinating, talented, and enormously polarizing is Alex Ross Perry. He first emerged a decade ago with Impolex (2009), a riff on Gravity’s Rainbow, which operated in a vein of surrealism and absurdism — featuring miniature V2 rockets, charmingly low-budget military uniforms, and a talking octopus — almost fully absent from the rest of his oeuvre. His next two films established his reputation for better and for worse: The Color Wheel (2011) is perhaps the most intensely unpleasant of his films, in some ways acting as an American cousin of Hong’s The Day He Arrives of the same year. Shot in a haze of 16mm black-and-white, it stars Perry himself and Carlen Altman (who also co-wrote) as siblings on a road trip to salvage the latter’s belongings from a nasty breakup with her former professor, and along the way skillfully excavates numerous hangups and issues. Perry’s finest film to date was his next work, Listen Up Philip (2014), which featured Jason Schwartzman as the eponymous moody author, who finds a mentor in an aging but intermittently brilliant writer played by Jonathan Pryce. Of all his films, it is perhaps the most covertly dynamic, in no small part due to a crucial interlude involving Philip’s girlfriend, radiantly played by Elisabeth Moss, and its trajectory is at once inevitable yet utterly surprising. From there, Perry’s career path has taken him to strange but often fruitful pathways, including the explicitly psychological framework of Queen of Earth (2015), which featured Moss and Katherine Waterston in a Persona-esque two-hander, and the gentler city film environs of Golden Exits (2017), a true ensemble cast featuring, among others, Emily Browning, Schwartzman, and Chloë Sevigny.
All of this has led to Her Smell, his most daring and expansive work yet, and easily his most impressive on a directorial level. Once again, it stars Moss, this time as Becky Something, the mercurial and explosive bandleader of the riot grrl band Something She, which enjoyed enormous success sometime in the early-’90s (becoming the first all-female band to score a platinum record) and which by the start of the film is playing to crowds half their previous capacity. What follows is a gloriously theatrical five-act narrative, moving relentlessly through two hours and fifteen minutes that span the better part of a decade, as Becky undergoes a severe, harrowing mental and professional decline and, ultimately, a genuine form of redemption.
In portraying this long arc, Perry has pushed himself and his collaborators to perhaps their finest work, both individually and as a collective. Even moreso than his cast, Perry’s career has been defined by his close collaborations with key crew members: cinematographer Sean Price Williams, who has shot all of Perry’s films along with something like half of the NYC independent films of the past decade; editor Robert Greene, who has edited Perry’s past four films and who is one of the most important American documentary filmmakers in his own right, with films like Kate Plays Christine and last year’s great Bisbee ’17; and composer Keegan DeWitt, one of the most in demand composers working today and who has scored Perry’s past four films. All of their collaborations have tended towards the atmospheric, which has been relatively neglected in assessments of Perry’s films and direction, but Her Smell brings this towards the forefront, making the sense of place inseparable from the mindset that the film places the viewer into. Each of the five acts is essentially organized as one unbroken, near-real-time twenty-five-minute scene, augmented by Williams and his camera crew’s Steadicam work (and Perry’s first outing on 35mm) and a persistent, unnerving soundscape by DeWitt. The effect is less for Birdman-like faux-immersion than for a consistent sense of manic energy, albeit one with a considerable sense of modulation, both between and within acts. Perry’s screenplay, while as verbose as ever, adapts well to this approach, using words more as a sonic device than (necessarily) as immediately comprehensible discrete phrases.
Naturally, Moss has already garnered immense praise, and her sense of ferocity is readily apparent, balanced with a genuine compassion and drive that complicates and deepens the film’s reckoning with her destructiveness. But the rest of the ensemble cast is very nearly as brilliant, starting with Becky’s bandmates played by Agyness Deyn (the restive core of Terence Davies’ Sunset Song), whose own arc mirrors the chaotic dynamism of Moss’s, and Gayle Rankin, the source of relative but strained calm in the trio. Other actors leave just as vivid impressions: Eric Stoltz as a long-suffering, stretched-thin manager; Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson, and Dylan Gelula as the members of the Akergirls (yes, a reference to the legendary director), a group who essentially grew up worshiping Something She and is ready to carry the torch; Dan Stevens as Becky’s ex-husband and the father of her child, who she so longs to do right by.
More than anything, Her Smell is a work of sensations and moments that rise out of a surprisingly painful and hopeful core: blurred hands rising out of a crowd; an unexpected cut to a silent reaction that speaks volumes; a strange, largely unexplained religious ceremony; the entire fourth act, which serves as a respite in both form (consisting of locked-down tripod shots) and emotional valence, though it is no less powerful for it. Thus, Perry’s sense for detail has never been more acute, and his sensitivity, both in sensibility and in his close, vital collaboration with his brilliant cast and crew, makes this high-wire film sing.