Her Smell – writer-director Alex Ross Perry’s latest abrasive outing – opens with an oddly comforting image. We meet rock trio Something She in the early ’90s as they’re celebrating an appearance on the cover of Spin magazine before we cut abruptly to a few years later. The group’s front-woman, Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss), has transformed into a spiraling diva, a rock star on the brink of breakdown. Her crowds are dwindling while backstage she juggles pseudo-religious rituals, her child, umpteen lawsuits, and angry bandmates.
During the first three (of five) acts, Her Smell really commits to this depiction of its protagonist, punctuated by flashbacks to quieter times. It’s not pretty – but through Perry’s eyes, these sequences are undeniably gorgeous. Working with cinematographer Sean Price Williams (who shot the Safdie brothers’ equally kinetic Good Time), Becky’s movements through a labyrinth of backstage corridors and tense recording sessions ride the line between hypnotic and alarming. Perry’s sound design attempts to give the viewer an anxiety attack, while the camera keeps up with Moss’ manic pace, complete with (artificial) lens flares and uncomfortable close-ups galore.
Needless to say, this cannot last. By the fourth act Becky has reached rock bottom, and when we meet her a year into recovery, she’s begun to piece herself back together. The camera, too, has slowed down, rarely deviating from still, stationary shots. The final portion of Her Smell shows Becky’s “final” performance: Snaking through the same corridors where we first met her, Perry tries to find tension in the prospect that Becky will relapse into her familiar, self-destructive patterns.
But this final act largely falls flat, because the film has already bent over backwards to redeem Becky. As a result, Her Smell becomes far more conventional than Perry seems to have intended. Though the aesthetic and atmosphere are fully realized and wholly unique, the broader through-line of “talented star wrestles with addiction and self-destruction, before finding redemption” is the structural template used by every musical biopic from Walk the Line to Bohemian Rhapsody (for more, see Patrick H. Willem’s insightful and in-depth video essay on the topic).
To a certain extent, biopics are forced to conform to this formula, as their construction relies on permission from the star’s estate, surviving bandmates, or even the subject themselves. But by creating his own rock star, Perry had the potential to interrogate our understanding of celebrity – starting with the redemption arcs into which their lives must fit.
The “comeback” narrative thrives off-screen as well – or at least, it used to. Once a star reaches a certain level of prominence, their “failure” can become a piece of the story that surrounds them. Again, “Becky Something” isn’t the first to grapple with addiction and self-destruction – just ask Robert Downey Jr., Britney Spears, Alec Baldwin, Ben Affleck, Mandy Moore, Natasha Lyonne or Lindsay Lohan (to name a few). This is not to deny the struggles of these individuals. However, it is worth noting that a “comeback” is a win-win: Fans and consumers can enjoy the existing body of work guilt-free; management reaps the financial rewards in the process.
But celebrity culture and its scandals have evolved past the structure Her Smell is built around. Instead of self-contained meltdowns, we’re starting to see these people as the faces of the same bigger, systemic issues: toxic masculinity, the rise of the alt-right, the unjust power of the ultra-wealthy. The flaws of our celebrities are clearer than ever, and comebacks aren’t on the table. That’s a good thing. Louis CK’s recent foray back into the limelight was a disaster. Lori Loughlin is being wholly deleted from an upcoming season of television. What can Kanye West say or do to make his Trump-loving and history denying antics of 2018 forgivable? In other words, those with a stake in the residuals of Woody Allen movies might love to see their client “redeemed,” but they’ll likely be disappointed.
Enter Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux, a film determined to deconstruct celebrity by any means necessary. Just like Her Smell, the first shot of Vox Lux is a grainy, faux-home video, but in the opening ten minutes, Corbet beats Perry at his own distressing game. The opening scene is a brutal depiction of a school shooting – set in 1999, it’s a veiled representation of that year’s horrific events in Columbine, Colo. In the aftermath of this tragedy, we meet recovering 13-year-old Celeste Montgomery (Raffey Cassidy); at a vigil a few weeks later, Celeste sings for a mourning crowd, and her voice captures a nation.
It isn’t long before she encounters Jude Law’s “The Manager” (seriously, Corbet doesn’t give him a name), and the young Celeste is quickly swept up in the cutthroat world of the teen pop-music industry. In the next act, it’s 18 years later: Celeste has grown into a Staten Island-accented Natalie Portman, while Cassidy has been re-cast as Celeste’s daughter, Albertine. It’s our first indication that Corbet views celebrity as a cycle, in contrast to Perry’s linear narrative.
And according to Lux, this a cycle explicitly tied to acts of violence: Before we see Portman’s Celeste (at the halfway point in the runtime), Corbet cuts to a massacre in Eastern Europe. Its relevance? The gunmen wear masks identical to the one Celeste wears in her first video. It’s a hopeless message, though there’s something admirable about Corbet’s commitment to this bleak – and realistic – worldview. Unlike Perry, Corbet never aestheticizes Celeste’s reality, and his shots are muted, grey, and frequently static (though, admittedly, its star’s extravagant costumes are pretty fun).
We never see Celeste recover. The narrator (Willem Dafoe) reveals that in 2011, Celeste ran over a pedestrian, seriously injuring him in a DUI. While her next studio album and upcoming tour might be coded as “rebirth” to the public (as Celeste announces to a journalist), Corbet makes it clear that Celeste is still exhibiting all the same harmful behaviors. The entire second half of the film takes place on the first day of her “comeback” tour, but Vox Lux never redeems Celeste, and “celebrity redemption” in general is presented as an obviously fake narrative.
Both Celeste and Becky engage in a slew of self-destructive behaviors – the actions that prompt a need for this redemption narrative in the first place – but the question remains: why? The best Her Smell can muster is that “Becky Something” is a persona “Rebecca Adamcyzk” uses to hide from herself – but again: why? Perhaps a conclusive answer lies somewhere in Moss’ nuanced performance, but it’s relegated to the periphery of Perry’s screenplay.
Here, Lux is brutally clear: “Celeste had been led here,” proclaims Dafoe’s narrator. Her lingering and unaddressed trauma has festered for decades, while everyone around her has profited from her image. The Manager, a stand-in for everything Corbet sees as exploitative and evil about the capitalist culture machine, has made a career out of enabling her damaging patterns. His hook-ups with Celeste and her sister drive the pair apart, sabotaging the one positive relationship Corbet depicts.
None of this is to say that Vox Lux is a success, or necessarily worth your time. Something this grim is genuinely difficult to recommend, and its back half is increasingly scattershot. But if you’re going to address celebrity in 2019 – or build a narrative around it – Corbet deserves credit for looking at the problem from the top down. Stylistically, Her Smell is top-notch, but the picture lands in a weird middle ground between escapism and disgusting claustrophobia. If you’re going to wind up alienating your audience, you might as well make a valuable point along the way – our celebrities are just as screwed up as we are, and they always will be.