In “Her Smell,” Elisabeth Moss tears into the role of Becky Something, a strung-out hellion indie rock star of the early ’90s, like an angry lioness ripping through a slab of raw meat. Just taking on the part of a rock ‘n’ roller represents a major change of pace for Moss, who has tended to play cautious and pensive characters. But in “Her Smell,” Moss doesn’t just “let loose” (the way that, say, Meryl Streep did in a fake rock ‘n’ roll bauble like “Ricki and the Flash”). She dives headfirst into crazy, abandoned, fuck-it-all grunge narcissism. She plays Becky as a walking train wreck of borderline personality disorder who has elevated herself into a theatrically self-destructive druggie dominatrix. Becky may be an unholy terror, but that doesn’t mean she’s not a star. The stardom and the rancid solipsism are two sides of the same spectacularly damaged coin, and Moss herself has the star quality, and the fearlessness, to pull that off.
As it turns out, “Her Smell” isn’t the only movie this season in which a celebrated actress pulls out all the stops — including some you never knew she had — to play a fictional but close-to-the-bone rock-world figure dancing on the edge of self-destruction. Natalie Portman does a version of the same thing in “Vox Lux.” That’s surely a coincidence, but what’s remarkable to consider is that the two films have more in common than the eruptive she-demon star turns at their center. In different ways, both are structured less as movies than as exploding chunks of narrative shrapnel. They seem not so much vehicles for their ferocious lead performances as awed reactions to them. It’s almost as if the films were channeling the wild forces at their center, astounded at the spectacle of these divas from hell seizing the spotlight. And it’s as if the filmmakers — Brady Corbet in “Vox Lux,” and Alex Ross Perry in “Her Smell” — felt as if it was mostly their job to stand back and gawk.
“Her Smell” opens with a backstage sequence that rambles on for half an hour, as the camera rushes around, catching what happens on the fly, much of it in extreme close-up, as if this were some debauched rock-underworld documentary. It’s experiential filmmaking at its most hypnotically assaultive. After Becky makes her usual two-hours-late appearance, she and her band, Something She, get up on stage at a club called Her Smell and deliver a scorcher of an anthem. But once they’re back in the dressing room, Becky doesn’t relax — she just turns up the volume.
Nothing is sacred and no one is safe. She bullies and abuses her bandmates, Marielle (Agyness Deyn) and Ali (Gayle Rankin), as well as her hangers-on and the strait-laced owner of her record label (Eric Stoltz), not to mention Danny (Dan Stevens), the cowed husband she walked out on seven months ago. You’d expect someone like Becky to have unkind words for her ex-, except that the whole reason he’s there is that he has brought along their infant daughter, and Becky can barely bring herself to pay attention to her.
Is it the drugs she’s on? Or is this who Becky really is? The character has been modeled on figures from the caterwauling early-’90s indie rock scene. The filmmaker claims that the thrashing proto riot grrrl band L7 was one of his key inspirations, but it’s still hard not to look at Becky and think of Courtney Love (whom the filmmaker insists was not an inspiration), because Moss plays her with that kind of megalomaniacal pain-freak grandeur. The actress has a new facial expression here: a smile that curls like a snarl. It’s magnetic and scary. The actor it reminded me of was Divine.
The Becky we see is the rocker as monster, and though there’s a flagrant fascination to that, we can’t help but wonder if this is going to be the whole damn movie. It’s a major chuck of it. Yet Perry, the director of “Listen Up Philip” and “Golden Exits,” does have a strategy, a design. “Her Smell” is divided into five rambling acts, each introduced by a grainy home movie of the band in its heyday (toasting and mocking their Spin magazine cover, etc.), that catch Becky, over half a dozen years, at key points in her life and career.
Backstage, she’s at her most reckless and dissolute, and in the next episode, set at a recording studio during a session that goes nowhere, she’s at her most sadistic. A younger and greener band shows up, the Akergirls — Cassie (Cara Delevigne), Dottie (Dylan Gelula), and Roxie (Ashley Benson) — and it turns out that the label has booked the studio for them. The endlessly tinkering Becky has overstayed her welcome. She invites the Akergirls to collaborate, which bespeaks a sisterly impulse, but she treats Ali, her own drummer, with such arbitrary disdain that Ali, after what we presume is years of this, stalks out.
It’s during this section that you may begin to grow a little impatient with the movie. Bad behavior can be arresting, but if it’s not cut with anything else it becomes predictable. As “Her Smell” goes on, Becky will start to get better, but what Alex Ross Perry keeps at arm’s length is any abiding sense of her identity as an artist. He doesn’t want to make an uplifting down-and-dirty grunge musical. That would be too easy. (It also wouldn’t be hip.) But what “Her Smell” feels like is a grinding rock psychodrama that’s top-heavy with weary redemption. It doesn’t have incidents, it has characters and an overarching design. And that’s a bit much (or not enough). The movie is asking, on some level, to be congratulated for its purity, and at 2 hours and 15 minutes that’s a lot of purity.
Yet once you’re in there, you go with it. Elisabeth Moss’s commitment, and the burnished bravura of her talent, pull you through. With her beautiful gaping eyes that seem to take everything in, she’s like a punk Bette Davis; she has that kind of lyrical fury. In the third episode, we see Becky back in her woodsy Victorian home in the Pacific Northwest, with close to a year of sobriety, but buried under a dozen lawsuits that have bled her dry. The ego still shines through, but she’s calm, and treats people better, and there’s a touching scene in which her daughter (now about five), who has come to visit, sits next to her at the piano as Becky sings and plays Bryan Adams’ “Heaven,” which she turns into a kind of lullaby. The fact that she sings that song is an acknowledgement that she has let go of the fatal desire to be cool. It’s also a touching acknowledgement that she has learned where heaven is: in the here and now. The whole scene has a surprise loveliness, and I felt, to be honest, as if the movie could have ended right there.
But no. There are two more lengthy scenes, one of them set several years later at a reunion of Something She. Will Becky show up late again and be the same old Becky? No, she has grown. Maybe even grown up. At this point, however, her odyssey — from basket case to recovering rock star, from makeup-smeared harpie to elder stateswoman of grunge — has come to seem entirely conventional. Which begs the question: What if we had been watching it in a more conventional movie? Is the form that Alex Ross Perry has come up with, the scenes that ramble on without pretending to have a plot, truly revealing anything? Or is it just a way of making a classic redemption story look novel? What it does do is seriously shrink the potential audience for a movie like this one. A little of “Her Smell” goes a long way, and this much of it, frankly, goes on way too long. But you won’t soon forget Moss’ self-annihilating radiance.