It’s hard to find the right word to describe what Elisabeth Moss is doing in Her Smell. The one that keeps coming to mind is “dangerous.” Not because it’s the role is a daring risk in terms of her career or image, far from it. It’s in the performance itself. It is so unhinged, so unrestrained, that every single moment teeters on the edge of a disastrous abyss. She has to give this character an insane amount of energy and never let up for a second. But she has to be smart enough not to let it tip into self-parody or camp, because that is decidedly not the movie Alex Ross Perry is making. Her Becky Something has to feel, in all her specific vocal tics and explosive emotional outbursts, like a fundamentally real person. Otherwise, the film’s sobering final third just feels like another act. That Moss pulls it off is nothing short of extraordinary. It’s one of the best performances I’ve seen all year.
What I’m unsure of in Her Smell has more to do with Perry’s fixations as a filmmaker. He’s made several movies about “difficult people,” almost always men, whose deep-seated insecurities are masked by a “charming” abrasion. They’re the sort of shitty men so many terrible writers imagine themselves to be, men who are supposed to deserve love and admiration (usually from the women in their lives) despite their total self-absorption. Queen of Earth is a notable break from the pattern, though I don’t remember that film well enough to say whether it distinguishes the Moss character from the eponymous lead of his most egregious example, Listen Up Philip.
Becky Something is just as off-putting a personality as any of his other leads, but this feels like the first time Perry is genuinely interested in interrogating his main character’s emotional defects without an ironist’s distance. The depiction of her flaws doesn’t come with a sardonic shrug and an eyeroll, as if to say “Yeah, I know, but so what?” Becky does horrific things to the people around her, and we see it through the eyes of the people she’s hurting. Her Smell doesn’t ask you to understand why she’s doing this; there’s little time spent on backstory or psychologizing. She’s just a tornado, and you have to endure her.
What makes me uneasy is that this is the first Perry film I’ve seen where the main character actually gets better. She’s forgiven by the people she hurt, one of whom actually says, “It never made me not love you.” We see her get sober, we see her mellow out, we see her reflect on her behavior. What we don’t see is what she did that instilled in others the will to keep loving her. She’s another Perry protagonist who receives love from people she’s done nothing but abuse, and by the film’s end we’re meant to understand that she’s earned it.
I’m not the writer who’s going to tell you that this is oh so problematic and therefore bad writing. I appreciate the aspects of Her Smell that trouble me. What I’m unsure of is if Perry has really learned anything as a filmmaker. This is certainly a far cry from the jauntier indies of his early career, with its droning panic attack of a score and noisy handheld camerawork. I just wish Perry had gone further in his examination of Becky. More than that, I wish he had further examined his own proclivities as an artist. Maybe it’s unfair to ask a director to be anything but what they are. He just gets so tantalizingly close here that I can’t help but see the better picture.