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Choose Me: The Smell of Us

Cristina Álvarez López


In an interview about The Smell of Us (2014), Nick Pinkerton asks Larry Clark about a scene in which the character of Math (Lukas Ionesco) wakes up with a hard-on and runs to the shower. Clark responds:


He’s pissed off. Mathieu wakes up and he was pissed off that he had a hard-on and he puts cold water on it to make it go down. It was all connected to what his character was doing, sexually. He wasn’t enjoying it. And that was what it was for. I don’t think the audience has to understand it, it’s a good scene. I showed the film to someone the other night, about eight people, they knew nothing about the film so they’re seeing it cold … and I thought: ‘Man, I wonder if anybody understands this scene?’ But it’s a good scene, it doesn’t make any difference. (1)


It is indeed a good scene. Because, even if you don’t yet have a clue about why Math is so upset, to see the rise of his helpless distress – from the physical agitation and the verbal negations uttered in despair, to the tears that pour uncontrollably from his eyes – is extremely moving.


The party scene in The Smell of Us – which happens (quite significantly, I feel) just before this other scene commented on by Clark – is among the passages in the film that I instantly loved. It’s also one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever lived in a cinema. Afterwards, I could remember the jolt. I could remember the beauty of certain shots, and the strangeness of others. I could remember, most of all, the glorious musical edit that breaks the sequence in two.


I confess: I became quite obsessed with this scene. With every shot, but also with every shift that happens in the cut from one shot to the next. I needed to watch the scene many times to really get a hold of it, to understand how carefully it is built, how fleeting some of its moves are. This text is a map of the party scene – a map with ten coordinates that can be zoomed into. Because I knew it was a good scene, but I also wanted to figure out why and how.


1. Nick Pinkerton, ‘Interview: Larry Clark (Part Two)’, Film Comment blog, 27 March 2015.







The scene (which occurs almost 6 and a half minutes into the film) can be divided into two main parts or phases. The first lasts, approximately, one and a half minutes. In elementary narrative terms, Math constitutes the centre of attention. The camera gives us, occasionally, individual or group shots of the members of the crowd. But it mainly follows Math as he walks around, observing and hardly participating in the party. This first part of the scene is also a tour through a space that we will never completely master. Clark does not give us any wide shots. We are unable to gain an accurate sense of the location that we come to know only partially, through its fragments.


The space where this scene was shot is, in fact, the underground basement of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. In 2012 this dead, unused zone, initially closed to the public, underwent a total reconversion when several graffiti artists were assigned this space to work in and with as part of a special art project. (2) Comprised of a few flat floors and many stairs and landings, in The Smell of Us this location looks like the severed portion of a Roman amphitheatre, a cave that could belong both to a very underground dance club and a squatter settlement. Clark enjoys playing on the possibilities arising from this lack of architectural definition.





2. This 2012 project, titled ‘In the Entrails of the Secret Palais’, is documented here; the commissioned artists were Lek, Sowat and Dem189. It is part of a larger program at the Palais, followed up in subsequent years, called the Lasco Project. The top photograph in the illustration is by Nibor Reiluos & Thias, and is taken from this webpage; the image below it is of the corresponding space as seen in The Smell of Us.


Instead of master shots, he favours medium shots, revealing always mobile portions of the surrounding space; and close-ups, often wrapped in a pictorial haze of out-of-focus backgrounds. The green, blue and fuchsia hues of neons and lasers constitute the ever-changing, always intermittent lighting of the scene. The graffiti that fills walls and ceilings becomes an abstract backdrop, intensifying the sense of constriction and hallucination. Bodies are precariously lit, perpetually moving, violently entering and exiting the frame, passing from extreme darkness to glittery fluorescence. These bodies often turn into black masses that occupy a portion of the shot while blocking our vision.


All the aesthetic decisions concerning the shooting and the editing of the scene are focused on enhancing the experience of the moment, aiming for an immersive plunge that triggers the viewer’s strong affects and, doubtless for some, memories. The first time I watched the film, it was indeed this affective memory/sensory trigger that I found overwhelming. The scene awakened the strange mixture of feelings and sensations associated with similar experiences: anaesthesia, hypersensitivity, abandonment, frenetic brain activity, spatial claustrophobia, an ecstatic sense of pleasure, fulfilment and freedom. An intense, profound, subjective experience lived alongside other people, in a communal, shared space. The kind of experience that cinema (and the cinema theatre) have usually claimed proudly as their own, but which I have only truly felt at rave parties.



At the very start of this scene, there is a detail that caught my attention. Math, at the right side of the frame, enters the party venue and advances laterally. As he passes a blurry figure standing in the background, he raises his arm slightly, looks briefly at the plastic bracelet on his wrist (0’02”), and touches his forehead for a moment (0’03”), before continuing to descend stairs. Where does this gesture come from? Math does not seem to be showing his bracelet to anybody; rather, he looks at it in the same way that one would look at a watch to check the time. It is a seemingly offhand, senseless movement, typical of an uncoordinated state of fuzziness. And yet, Math’s gesture points toward something else, establishing an instant connection with a mysterious exchange that we have just witnessed.



A few seconds earlier, in the previous scene, Pacman (Théo Cholbi) – one of Math’s friends – hands a condom filled with sperm to a young, bearded guy; in return, he receives a fuchsia-coloured plastic bracelet identical to the one Math is now wearing. The scene between Pacman and the other guy takes place in the same venue as the party, possibly in a different room – we can hear the booming echo of nearby music. No words are spoken, the emphasis is on the exchange: both items – the condom and the bracelet – are raised in the air by the characters when handing them over, and both are kept in the centre of the frame for several seconds. When, moments later, Math raises his arm to look at his own bracelet, a very precise rhyme between these two moments is thus established.



This rhyme – however elliptically conveyed by Clark – seems to suggest that Math’s entrance to the party is subjected to some kind of sexual favour or game. The exact terms of the agreement remain unclear, and so do the parties involved. But, since Pacman will not be seen again in the scene, we may assume that the bracelet he has traded for a condom could very well be the same that Math is wearing when he enters the party. Other revellers wear bracelets of various colours, presumably a condition of entry to the party, but it is not the mundane realism or verisimilitude of this detail which matters here – rather, what Clark suggests with it.


While many critics and viewers have dismissed The Smell of Us as a chaotic mess in which nothing makes sense, I would suggest it is a film driven by a strong, powerful logic. If some things are buried and some links are ambiguous, it is certainly for a reason. Clark’s bravery and mastery as a director consist in, precisely, fearlessly sacrificing the viewer’s immediate understanding of some crucial facts and actions while, at the same time, carefully layering a series of nuanced moments, flashing revelations, hallucinatory associations. He does this on the basis of two principles.


First principle is the subjectivity – both on a surface plane and a deeper plane – of the characters (mainly of his protagonist, Math), according to which the film adopts strategies of perceptual confusion and denial, as well as diverse disguises and masks. The second principle involves the particular movement of immersion (from outside to inside) through which Clark chooses to lead us as viewers. These principles have a general significance governing the entire film.


The Smell of Us begins by presenting an image of youth that will be questioned via its very unfolding. If the film puts anything in doubt, it is the ‘decadent youth’ image that the characters themselves adopt and project: the movie begins on the outside, seemingly promulgating this image, in order to progressively enter the teens’ domestic spaces and inner selves. It begins by asserting the power of these teenagers – who seem to have freely decided to commodify their youth because it sells well – but it ends by painfully twisting this vision, showing them to be powerless, prisoners of their own freedom. (3)


The business with the bracelet may seem an almost insignificant or merely incidental detail in relation to the development of the scene. But I think it reveals much about Clark’s modus operandi both on a small and a large scale, and about his vision of the intricate ways in which youth is held blind hostage in the very act of manifesting and pursuing its own culture and rebellion.



Besides the shouts of the crowd and a few lines of dialogue, music (first diegetic and later, in a surprise move, extra-diegetic) is the only thing we hear in this scene. It constitutes the main element of the soundtrack. During the 4 minutes and 20 seconds that the whole scene lasts, we will hear three different musical themes. The track played by the DJs in this first part titled ‘Touch Me’ (4) combines, basically, frenzied, high-pitched tones with a slow drum beat and a robotic voice that repeats the only lyrics of the track: the two words contained in its title.


Figurally speaking, the scene is conceived as a descent into hell. After his inaugural gesture (0’02”), once he starts going down the stairs, Math leaves the camera behind (0’06”). A shot from the reverse position shows him making his way through the crowd while he keeps descending (0’10”). Shot three (0’13”) returns to the previous set-up. Then, Clark introduces the first close-up of Math (0’15”). As usual in Clark’s cinema, it is not a classical, perfectly framed portrait of his face: the camera is too close, stuck to his skin, capturing the sweat and dirt. Moreover, his face appears bruised, perhaps due to crying, drug abuse or extreme tenderness.


















3. This paragraph derives from my article ‘Larry Clark’s Portrait in Flesh’, Fandor, 28 May 2015.







4. In the film’s credits, ‘Totem’ and ‘Touch Me’ are credited to ‘Picardi Antoine’. However, according to all Internet sources, these tracks/mixes are signed by the Belgian group Party Plaisir. They can be heard here: ‘Totem’ and ‘Touch Me’.


In contrast with the multitude that dances, abandoned to the music, Math is vigilant and isolated. Behind his apparent lack of expression, we can feel him to be tense, restless (possibly looking for his friends), not entirely comfortable. Two shots of the crowd – the second focused on a female figure who dances while throwing water on herself – are followed by another close-up of Math (0’34”). In profile, he turns to his left and advances, turning his back to the camera that now, instead of following him, racks focus to offer us a sharper view of the dancers in the background.



At this point in the scene (0’38”), a close-up of a dancer whose head jumps in and out of frame is introduced, paired with the start of a new musical section of the same track. In the next shot (0’42”), we see Math going down a new set of stairs, while some siren effects (which are actually part of the song) fill the soundtrack. Clark shows Math descending in four consecutive shots, taken from different surrounding positions, getting closer to the character with each new cut. After the last shot of this series, the musical crescendo starts.




We are now at the 0’53” mark. During the next 25 seconds, Clark will focus on the group of Math’s friends. They are seated on some steps, but it is impossible to determine their exact location in relation to the global space. Again, Clark deliberately avoids a group shot but, carefully observing the scene, we can deduce, at least, the position that each character occupies in the group configuration. First we have a shot of a couple kissing, later a close-up of JP (Hugo Behar-Thinières), seated at the right side of them. Then Clark cuts to two girls, installed one step below; they clasp their hands and wave their arms as the musical crescendo reaches its highest point. In the fourth and fifth shots, coinciding with the transition to a new musical section (marked by more vibrant, reverberating sounds), the other male shotguns weed to JP who then leans back and coughs. In the sixth shot there is a beautiful rhyme on movement: one of the girls seated below JP also leans back in order to ask him something. Cut to a close-up of him as he answers her.



The first part of the scene is about to conclude. The cut to an extreme close-up of Math (1’20”), again turning his face at the precise moment that the music acoustically resonates most intensely, creates an illusory closeness between him and JP – even if, in terms of spatial continuity, we cannot determine how close or far away from each other they actually are. Tied to this turning movement of Math’s head, a sliding, extended, bass tone precedes the utterance of the lyrics (‘touch me’), in three consecutive repetitions. As happens often with electronic music, if one is not familiar with this track, it is possible to not recognise either voice or words. The voice sounds dehumanised, like some artificial device vibrating and stuttering. This makes it difficult to grasp the imperative desire – ‘touch me’ – enunciated by the lyrics.



The next two shots (1’22”–1’27”) have very particular qualities. They show fragments of two naked torsos (shoulders, neck and collar bone of a male; two small breasts of a female). Covered by a fuchsia hue, these remind me of the bodies in the dance scene of Philippe Grandrieux’s La vie nouvelle (2002). As conduits through which the music passes and is expelled, these two bodies present an unnatural motion, strangely stilled and accelerated. This first part of the scene ends with a shot behind Math: with the background turned into a blurry mixture of shapes and colours, the camera moves closer to the nape of his neck (1’29”), reframing slightly.



In relation to the overall scene, what I find most intriguing is that the musical track ‘Touch Me’, which we have heard during this first part, aurally prefigures or anticipates what will happen visually in the second phase that is about to begin. In musical moments like this (and we will see another example of this later), it seems that, more than pursuing a perfect audiovisual mirroring or match, Clark experiments with deeper and more complex relations between image and sound. The second part of the scene will be built around Math’s conflicted desire; we shall see that his desire is – like that formulated by the robotic voice of the musical track – hidden, disguised, enunciated only subliminally … both expressed and repressed.



After the sliding bass tone that accompanies the camera movement in the previous shot of Math’s back, a new musical theme titled ‘Totem’ is introduced by the DJs. This transition is perfect, seamless. We are at the 1’30” mark and, for the first time in the scene, there is a wide shot from the top of the stairs that, finally, allows us to gain some sense of the global space. At the bottom, in a corner, we can see the DJs with their mixing tables. On the wall, completely covered by graffiti, a fluorescent, fuchsia, tube light stands out. The stairs fill the whole space (narrow, claustrophobic), functioning as podiums for the dancing crowd that forms rows at different heights. This shot (which zooms out and later in) appears to be a typical audience recording made with an in-built phone camera; if we look closely, now we can see that one of Math’s friends is situated on the right side, near to the DJs. Then there is a cut to another set-up (1’39”) in the middle of the audience, giving us a closer view of the DJs, just before the camera zooms out again.


Now (1’41”) starts a section of the scene that will be developed in four shots. In the first shot (a long one: 26 seconds), taken from a low position, we see a group of fragmented male bodies that face the DJs while dancing with their arms up. The shot is focused, mainly, on their torsos; the heads entering and exiting the frame as they move. In the first row we have the first boy, shirtless, covered in sweat, his ribs very evident. Behind him, there are two more boys (also shirtless) and, between them, a fourth kid with a green T-shirt. In the foreground are two backlit figures, one at each side of the frame. The dark mass at the right will, eventually, become more identifiable as the shot develops.


The stairs dictate a mise en scène of severed figures, situated at different heights, forming a pictorial composition in motion. The camera tilts (1’48”) and reframes, getting closer to the boys’ faces, and then we realise that this shot corresponds to an over-the-shoulder perspective belonging to the backlit figure at the right. Now we can see that this man (Alexandre Soulié) is facing the boys, slightly inclined over them, with his back to the DJs. He inspects the body of the first kid (in the lower row), and later proceeds to do the same with the second boy.



It is not until the next shot (2’07”) that we understand that he is also smelling them. Here, from another set-up, we see the man in a profile close-up – he is older than the kids, with curly hair and a thick beard, his head approaching the first boy’s armpit. The third shot (2’14”) takes us back to the first set-up (the man’s back); the fourth shot (2’18”) corresponds to the second set-up (his profile). This whole section seems to have been recorded with two cameras that offer views from two mobile set-ups. The material filmed with one camera in shot 1 is reused in shot 3; shots 2 and 4 use footage recorded by a second camera. The editing by Marion Monnier is brilliantly done: instead of pursuing a perfect, seamless continuity between these four shots, Clark and Monnier favour a very effective use of stutter cuts, each shot repeating, at its start, action from previous shots. In fact, all we see in shots 2, 3 and 4 has already happened in shot 1.


Of course, we cannot grasp this in a single viewing of the film; we can, however, sense its effect. This section is marked by an unpredictable discontinuity. In the cut from one shot to another, certain movements have been either rewound and replayed or elided – and we can feel this. The strategy enhances the hunter-like presence of the mysterious figure of the older man and imbues him with an aura of menace. And the situation becomes even more chilling because of the fact (another masterful, brilliant directorial touch) that none of the boys seem to either notice his presence or feel troubled by it.



We are approaching the most crucial part of the scene. Coinciding with the last shot of the previous section, a change in the music is introduced. What we are hearing is still the ‘Totem’ theme, but the popping, aggressive sounds resembling videogame shotguns have given way to a more delicate keyboard riff. A high angle view of Math from the back (as he nods his head to the beat) precedes a surprising image (2’25”): situated closer, at his left side and in a lower position, the camera gives us a close-up of Math’s hand with the fuchsia bracelet on. At the same time, another hand coming from the left side of the frame approaches him and grabs his crotch – with Math turning slightly toward the camera in order to let us see this action more clearly.



A close-up of the man (2’29”) looking directly and intensely into Math’s eyes is followed by a high-angle view (2’31”) that lets us see both their heads. This is one of the great moments of the scene. At the left side of the frame, the older man takes a good look (from top to bottom) at Math, and then discards him. He turns toward the camera and leaves the boy behind. But, at the same time, Math also turns his body, looking at the man’s back as he drifts away, his body eventually covered by the older man’s silhouette. This superb choreography of non-spoken rejection and desire reminds me vividly of the silent, stylised moments preceding the duels in Westerns. It also evokes the memory of a specific moment in another recent film I adore, Héléna Klotz’s Atomic Age (2012): the encounter, on the dance floor, of Rainer (Dominik Wojcik) and an unnamed gay boy (Luc Chessel). A tense, almost violent encounter, played by the actors in these same haunting, semicircular movements.



I don’t know if Clark had seen this film by Klotz by the time he shot The Smell of Us, or if he would even like it, but I find – among the many differences – some strong connections between them that go beyond me liking both of them. Certainly, Klotz’s debut is a calmer and more cohesive film, less dirty and chaotic than The Smell of Us, with a more obviously controlled mise en scène, a heavier use of dialogue and even recitation. But both films aspire, each in its own way, to offer a portrait of teenagehood (and of male friendship, and of elusive gay desire) in the quest of pleasure; a portrait, however, that does not rely on realism, that deals with basic essential feelings – such as rejection, a crucial theme in both films – but filtered through the highly stylised, mythically-oriented, personal vision of their directors.


Both films also share some members of their technical crew – for instance, cinematographer Héléne Louvart as well as editor Monnier (5) who was working, simultaneously, on Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden (2014). Without entering into fruitless conjecture over whom we should credit for each small (but often highly significant) decision taken in Clark’s scene, I would bet that the excellent work of these two collaborators is reflected not only in its general look and feel, but also in the fine-grain details that make it so great, complex and powerful.



Let us return to the scene and to the central shot in question. As the man advances, leaving Math behind, just when his figure is about to exit the frame, the boldest move of the sequence takes place: the diegetic music suddenly stops (2’38”), and so do the ambient sounds and shouts. And, in the most magnificent musical cut, Bob Dylan’s ‘Ring Them Bells’, issuing from extra-diegetic space, begins to be heard. I shall later discuss in more detail some questions relating to this musical choice. But what can already be said is that this theme transforms the scene completely, situating us in a whole new space. It is a brilliant move toward intimacy: while the crowd surrounding Math still dances to the rhythm of ‘Totem’, we (and he) are transported to another sphere. Dylan’s song opens up a severely closed, hidden space: the space of Math’s desire.


5. Monnier shares the editing credit on Atomic Age with Cristóbal Fernández.



In two separate shots (2’38”–2’44”), Math observes how the man starts to approach two other boys. The camera focuses on his hands. Again, continuity is severed in order to enhance the impact of the gesture: his hands posed on the shoulders of a boy who sits on the stairs, his hands running along the back of another boy who dances in the crowd. Contrary to what we have witnessed before – where he seemed like a ghost passing unnoticed among the kids – this time his presence is acknowledged. These two shots end similarly, with each boy turning toward the man after experiencing his touch.



The next shot (2’45”), taken from Math’s side, is a close-up. His usually blank expression is now filled with an almost infantile pain. Then a second close-up (2’49”), with the camera situated in front of him and at a lower angle. Now, Math’s face is turned, in profile, as he looks toward the right side of the frame, at the man off-screen. In contrast with the previous shot, where Math’s figure was slightly vacillating (as if drawing back from the painful sight) while other bodies moved in the background, here Math stands still, with a fixed look: there is far more stasis in this shot, an abstract stillness that surrounds his figure.



Then Clark introduces another surprise move, a key moment for us in understanding what really happens in this scene. While Math is still looking at the man (who, we assume, is at the right side, in the off-screen space), this same man appears in the left side of the frame, just behind Math (2’51”). The precise configuration of the bodies and of Math’s look in this shot is what discloses (for me, without a moment’s hesitation) that what we are witnessing is Math’s compensatory fantasy. A fantasy not only born from the man’s rejection, but also growing alongside it. Because, while he looks at this man who, some metres away in the off-screen space approaches other young bodies, here, in a parallel dimension crowned by Dylan’s song, Math’s fantasy is displayed on screen.



The following shots totally transform our idea of the older man’s character by aligning his outward depiction with Math’s inner projection of him. The man is no longer this predatory, haunting presence who explores the terrain, seeking his own pleasure in the kids’ odour. If we are ready to leave behind whatever disapproving notions may have already occurred to us concerning this person (whom Clark himself has wilfully presented, only seconds ago, as a stalker), we cannot deny that his present interaction with Math is one of the most peaceful, rapturous moments of the entire film. For all the rough, dispassionate sex that we have seen and will see again in The Smell of Us, this encounter is almost shy – shy, but incredibly charged, sensual and ecstatic.


In the next eight shots (2’57”-3’37”), the man kisses and touches the boy, providing (more than seeking) pleasure, turning him into the chosen one. His movements are extremely slow, stretched out forever; his expert gestures are imprinted in charged close-ups: his mouth, surrounded by the thick beard, kisses the top of Math’s back while his hand pulls down the T-shirt’s neck; his fingers, opened, crowned with rings, glide through Math’s lumbar curve and, later, across his crotch.



The last three shots of this section, deftly edited, bid farewell to the fantasy, keeping it at its high point: as if this bliss could not get any better, nor go any further, than this. The man takes his lips away from Math’s back and pulls up the T-shirt; in the next shot, an affecting rhyme in movement occurs when his hand withdraws, again slowly, from Math’s crotch. This section’s final shot is a close-up of Math, with his head still turned, his eyes still fixed on the off-screen space.



There is yet one small but powerful detail that has a soothing, other-worldly effect, enhancing Math’s ecstatic experience: the delicate sounds of breathing, moaning and rustling that have been carefully mixed (low in volume, but close in aural distance) with Dylan’s song. What’s left to film after this moment of heavenly joy? Its aftermath, which is not a return to reality, but the suspension of a deeply subjective experience that refuses to let itself go, slowly interlocking itself with the exterior space. This is the ending of the scene, comprised of ten shots.



It starts with a frontal close-up of Math, raising his head toward the ceiling, and closing his eyes; then it cuts to an abstract painting of grey, black and yellow patches. During the eight subsequent shots (3’46”–4’20”), Clark cuts between Math, who is still savouring his ecstasy, and the crowd. The mismatch between what we see (bodies violently dancing to the rhythm of the electronic music) and what we hear (‘Ring Them Bells’) has a magical effect. It is as if the whole place has been wrapped into Math’s joy. And he, looking like an angel, hanging on this joy, is pushed in all directions by other bodies – his head oscillating on the screen, whipped by blurry textures and dense colours.



In The Smell of Us we hear two musical themes by Bob Dylan: ‘Ring Them Bells’ during the party scene, and ‘Forever Young’ over the end credits, in a version performed by Jonathan Velasquez and Clark himself; both choices seem extremely significant to me. But I don’t think I will ever forget the first time I experienced the effect of that clean edit that takes us from Party Plaisir’s ‘Totem’ to ‘Ring Them Bells’, transforming the scene completely.


The song, however, feels to me like a gesture clearly performed from outside Math’s subjectivity, almost as an offering given by Clark to us and to him. ‘Ring Them Bells’ is a religious song that, suddenly, substitutes for the diegetic, electronic music – to accompany Math’s ecstasy and to relieve his pain. A song that comes from another space, that becomes shelter for his desire – a paradise for a compensatory fantasy. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.


But there is an extra layer given by the song lyrics. The imagery of ‘Ring Them Bells’, with its many Biblical references, is like a scattered, religious fresco about the imminent arrival of Judgement Day. The structure of the lyrics combines a call or summoning with a warning (already implicit in the call). When, via the editing, certain lines (‘Oh the shepherd is asleep / Where the willows weep / And the mountains are filled with lost sheep’) are connected to particular images, the figures and scenarios of a religious text seem to take root in the characters and spaces of the scene – and these mythical connections are enhanced, in many different ways, throughout the film.



What we actually hear of ‘Ring Them Bells’ is only its last three (of five) verses, or 1 minute and 55 seconds of the total song as first recorded and released on Dylan’s Oh Mercy album of 1989, produced by Daniel Lanois. Its entrance is tied to the shot in which Math is rejected, signalling the trigger of his fantasy. The second verse (fourth in the song) accompanies the manifestation of this fantasy – the highly charged close-ups of fragmented body parts. But, also here, with references to ‘the blind and the deaf’, ‘the chosen few who will judge the many’ or ‘the child that cries when innocence dies’, the lyrics of the song, rather than just embracing Math’s fantasy, seem to be distilling its essence, and drawing attention to its larger context.



The last verse starts with the words: ‘Ring them bells, Saint Catherine, from the top of the room’. Right after this line, there is a cut to the multi-coloured ceiling, flickering with light. On the words ‘the lines are long and the fighting is strong’, the crowd of young teenagers is reintroduced. And, then, over the ecstatic close-up of Math, the last part of the song: ‘And they’re breaking down the distance between right and wrong’. A line that, in all its ambiguity, shines as the precious core of the scene we have just witnessed – and a line that, according to Dylan himself, he ‘was trying to fix, but never did’. (6)




6. Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume 1 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), p. 196.



Diane Rouxel (who plays Marie in the film) has confessed in an interview that the first time she saw The Smell of Us, she felt ‘hyper-disappointed not to find the script that I really adored’. It was not until her second viewing that she began to appreciate the film’s ‘captivating scenes’ and ‘particular ambience’. However, she adds:


I find that the characters have less depth than in the screenplay. For example, we can’t understand why Math is the way he is, while in the initial script we learned through flashback that he had been raped amidst pine trees in his childhood, and that sometimes he would rediscover pine needles on himself. It was full of such poetry. (7)


Rouxel’s take on the film summarises the most recurring criticisms received by The Smell of Us: that its plot makes no sense, that the motivations and psychology of the characters are underdeveloped. After its premiere in Venice in August 2014, many reviewers (who, unlike Rouxel, had not read the original script) concluded that the conflicts that arose between Clark and his actors during the shoot, as well as the changes introduced by him into the screenplay, had logically resulted in what they perceived as a mess. The moral of the old, conservative fable is, irrefutably, that nothing good can emerge from chaos. If those commentators had applied their crushing, hindsight logic to what actually can be seen and heard on the screen, maybe they would have written more insightful reviews of The Smell of Us.


Toward the end of the film, in a painfully intense and long scene, the origin of Math’s behaviour is revealed. We become witnesses to the maternal abuse that is not once addressed or spoken of by him in the film. By freely choosing to have sex with (mainly) older, male customers in exchange for money, Math seems to be unconsciously subverting the situation with his mother. But really, he is simply, compulsively repeating its core (with him always as the chosen, little boy).


The party scene – which happens very early in the film, but which we understand better in retrospect – is one of those few, precious moments in which Math’s desire (a desire that he denies to himself) is revealed. For a moment, the movie becomes the free, unashamed manifestation of this desire, while reminding us that there is nothing free about it. The scene exposes the inner workings of Math’s fantasy: how it is propelled only by rejection, how it desperately aims to sublimate the roles of both the one who chooses and the chosen one.


7. Caroline Besse & Aurélien Ferenczi, ‘Hyper bien, hyper dur, hyper décus … The Smell of Us raconté par ses acteurs’, Télérama, 21 January 2015. For further testimonies from the cast, see the dossier on The Smell of Us in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 707 (January 2015).







Finally, why do I love the party scene in The Smell of Us so much? Because the richness and the complexity of its meaning is rendered through a drama that is not just staged, but plastically and aurally developed through precise, concrete choices – and those choices, imprinted on the sonic space of the screen, are the filmmaker’s ethical gestures. Sometimes, in order to bear witness to the beauty and the mystery, you need to maintain a fleeting understanding of what’s happening. Sometimes, in order to remain loyal to your characters, you need to betray them a little. Sometimes, you have to be ruthless. And this ruthlessness may be the ultimate act of tenderness.


from Issue 6: Distances


© Cristina Álvarez López & LOLA, December 2015.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.