It probably goes without saying that you can’t believe everything you read on Pitchfork. As an example, take this recent headline: “Elisabeth Moss is essentially Courtney Love in the rock ’n’ roll drama Her Smell.” The fact is, Moss makes such an indelible impression as downward-spiralling grunge-era rocker Becky Something that—as many other reviewers have noted—it’s hard not to think of Love in her walking-disaster ’90s heyday.
Her Smell writer-director Alex Ross Perry doesn’t blame anyone for coming away with that impression, but he tells the Straight that the Hole frontwoman wasn’t necessarily a major inspiration for his own troubled punk queen.
“Pitchfork could, and obviously does, know more,” says Perry, reached at home in Brooklyn, “but for a general reviewer walking out of a screening, if you said, ‘Who is a woman in alternative rock at this time?’ they’d say ‘Courtney Love.’ And then you could say, ‘Who’s another one?’ And they wouldn’t be able to say. The average person doesn’t know Kim Deal. The average person doesn’t know Juliana Hatfield. The average person doesn’t know Mary Timony. None of these women’s names are household names in the way that Courtney Love is a household name. So it doesn’t annoy me. It makes perfect sense, but it’s like Chuck Klosterman says, all of reggae has been reduced to just the representation of Bob Marley. You could not make a movie about a black, dreadlocked reggae musician—no matter what happens in it—without people going, ‘This film was inspired by Bob Marley.’ You could say ‘No, it was inspired by Desmond Dekker,’ and they’d go, ‘Who’s that?’ ”
Whoever her real-world antecedents may be, Becky is a hell of a character. She spends most of Her Smell—which the Rio Theatre will be screening on Friday, Sunday, and Wednesday (April 26, 28, and May 1)—systematically alienating everyone who cares about her, including her mother (Virginia Madsen), her ex-husband (Dan Stevens), the harried head of her label (Eric Stoltz), and her ever-put-upon bandmates (Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin).
Perry, who previously directed Moss as the unhinged Catherine in 2015’s Queen of Earth, says his intention with the new film was to present the audience with a difficult character whose self-destructive impulses might trigger repulsion in some viewers and empathy in others.
“In one form or another it comes up in a lot of the movies I’ve made in the last few years that the characters are aggressive or challenging or unlikable in some way, and I wanted to push that,” he admits. “Not to make her more unlikable, but I wanted to push that into a way of making it more narratively understandable why this is the way the character is. And I became very interested in thinking, like, if she’s an addict—if she’s sick, if she has a disease that pushes her to be this way—can audiences still call that unlikable, or can they just look at her in the first three-fifths of the movie, when Becky is fully out of control, and just say, ‘Wow, that woman is really sick.’ Or will they just say, ‘Wow, that woman is really obnoxious’?”
With Moss firing on all cylinders, many viewers might feel inclined to say both.