Larry Clark’s latest film is an abstract tale of youth, sex, drugs and death set against the backdrop of Paris that, while clearly rehashing ground common with most of his past work, demonstrates a stylistic and artistic flair absent from films like Kids and Ken Park.1 The Smell of Us, his second film after his extended break between Wassup Rockers and Marfa Girl, centres on a group of rebellious, self-destructive skaters and their friends, following two boys, Math (Lukas Ionesco) and J.P. (Hugo Behar-Thinières) as they enter the male escort business and watch their worlds crumble around them. It’s a very loose plotline and doesn’t feel particularly necessary amongst Clark’s beautiful imagery. The film has been a passion project of Clark’s for years, sitting in the pipeline for over a decade and on some fronts it doesn’t disappoint, although overall, the entire experience feels extremely bogged down by these narrative elements.
From the film’s opening, a shot of French street kids skating around and doing tricks over a passed out, homeless man named Rockstar (played by Larry Clark himself), I knew I was in for a unique experience. Following this we are bombasted (albeit subtly) with a plethora of edgy sequences featuring explicit, (what I assume is) unsimulated sex, drug use, urination, violence, destruction, and skating. It’s a heady mix of racy content that’s actually executed better here than I’ve seen in any of his other work, and (for the most part) effectively breaks from the hetero-normative values we see so often in modern cinema. The commentary on youth cultures and the use of new media is clever, the depictions of sex never feel exploitative (shot from an objective gaze of an omnipotent observer, deconstructing the power-relations inherent in sexual encounters and presenting a sort of ‘voyeuristic gaze’ that is also physically defined through one of the characters in some of the films more abstract moments), the exploration of casual drug use seem a bit more realistic than those in Kids (although Clark needs to get with the times – the kids have moved past Coke and are on to Ketamine these days), and footage of skating, illegal raves, and destruction of property are all accurately rendered.
His cinematography, too, is far better developed than the straight-to-TV feel of much of Ken Park and (sometimes) mock-vérité stylings of Kids – a particular long take which sees skaters deep in the background, a train passing in the midground and the beautiful Marie (Diane Rouxel) in the foreground, in the film’s latter quarter sticks out. It’s a far more formally defined film than he’s earlier work and some sequences are beyond marvelous. His portrayal of Paris, a country that doesn’t normally do it for me, is wonderful too – a dirty, grimy, urban location with amazing classical architecture, and beautiful soft yellows and greens.
Considering all that’s great about The Smell of Us, it’s such a shame the film just doesn’t quite work. All of the formal elements approach perfection, but the narrative is unfortunately lackluster and arguably unnecessary. I would gladly watch exactly the same film with all of its narrative elements and dialogue hacked out – there’s more than enough to keep festival audiences and the artsier types who’d pick up a Clark flick captivated. Instead, he feels a need to shoehorn in another one of those heavy-handed morality tales that Clark has become so well known for into the final product. It’s a conclusion seems quite forced and is wholly unsatisfying, the whole thing so underdeveloped that the film comes across as an extremely hollow and empty experience. It’s major falling down is in this conclusion that undermines Clark’s fantastic relocation of sexual autonomy onto sex workers in the film’s former thirds, by removing the control his protagonists exercise over their situation, almost shaming our two leads for their actions. I’m not sure if this is what Clark was trying to convey, but it definitely across this way, and removed much of the power the film held as a subversive statement, falling back on the paternalistic morality cinema tropes that colour most films which deal with sex work.
Clark’s output has always been a fascination of mine; he is clearly a defiant, boundary pushing force from a country that puts out a lot of ‘safe’ cinema, and never before have I been so sure that the man is an artist in an industry of filmmakers. But therein lies the problem; the film seems far more suited to an art gallery setting than a film festival – it will surely play even worse edited for television or in a home video setting where viewers are prone to distraction. If Clark stripped out the narrative structure, maintaining the film’s more abstract elements, chopped up the scenes and scattered them around a gallery as an art installation this thing would be an absolute knock-out, however as a narrative feature film it just doesn’t quite work. Still, this may be the best (unrealized) video project he’s ever been involved with – I’ve definitely been no more certain of his talent as an artist, or the fact that he’s probably not the sexual predator some have suggested he is after viewing his earlier, more controversial work – and for that reason it will be worth checking out for some. There is definitely something to it all though – I went home right after the film and proceeded to talk about this apparent empty void of nothingness for about an hour, which is more lip service than I’ve given anything else in the program, but I cannot in good faith recommend this as a cinematic experience, it just doesn’t feel right.