A prime example of what we’ve just now dubbed “le cinema du entre-jambes,” or “crotch cinema,” Larry Clark’s “The Smell of Us” is a film so horrible it manages to significantly outdo the repulsiveness of its title. Having waded through Clark’s entire back catalogue some time ago (the things we do for Film Criticism), we were semi-apologists for his last movie, “Marfa Girl,” in which amid the sine qua non teen sex we thought we detected the green shoots of a more narrative-based direction, as well as some coherent characterization. “The Smell of Us” however, jettisons all of that in its portrait of disaffected youth (what else?) in Paris in favor of mindlessly repetitive and 100%, no-question-about-it exploitative, sequences of pretty young men engaging in various sexual activities. But that’s not to say Clark has nothing new up his crusty sleeve — this time out he’s added himself to the mix, appearing on camera alongside the objects of his lurid attention, and thus we have achieved an event horizon of skeeziness.
A group of skateboarders in Paris are at the heart of a loose coalition of young people who do drugs and have sex. Several of them are rent boys, including the Dorian Gray/Narcissus of the group Math (Lukas Ionesco) and his friend JP (Hugo Behar-Thinieres) who is in love with him, but is continually rejected because Math reckons he’s only gay for pay. There’s a girl who sometimes comes over and is jealous of JP’s closeness to Math, and so she snitches on JP to his parents, and there’s an indigent old man nicknamed Rockstar (Larry Clark) whom the group tolerate as a kind of mascot/despised pet. Oh, and there’s Michael Pitt (who featured in Clark’s “Bully”) with a guitar in a couple of scenes looking slightly uncomfortable at being so clearly surplus to requirements.
Employing a shooting style (DP: Helene Louvart) that lurches between leering fascination with the body hair, testicles and asscracks of his cast and fawning adulation at their glow of youth (Skin! Eyes! Glossy Fauntleroy curls!), there’s something deeply predatory, almost vampiric about the film. Clarke pours accusations of pornography on his cornflakes in the morning, so freely do they flow, but perhaps because this is the first film of his we’ve watched on the big screen (apart from “Kids” eons ago and the relatively tame “Marfa Girl”) we really did wonder what the defense would be in this case. It is a film without story, without message and crucially, without relevance. Clarke has skated by such concerns due to the free pass he apparently was issued in 1995 for “Kids,” a film which said something explosive and true about contemporary young people and their attitudes to sex and drugs. But despite that film’s value as a social document, here we are 20 years later and “The Smell of Us” contains not one single revelation about what it’s like to be young today except that apparently kids use cellphones and take pictures of themselves very often. In fact, rather than the much-vaunted Parisian setting or any place known to exist empirically, it feels like “The Smell of Us” is really located in Larryland, which is a grimy flophouse populated with alienated young people whoring out their bodies, failing to meaningfully connect with anything and inflicting casual wounds on each other because… I dunno…like, life and shit, you know?
But the film is ostensibly set in Paris, making it the first Clark film, we guess, that uses subtitles. And we were glad for them because it gave us something else to look at other than the images, many of which go beyond the merely provocative or explicit and into the realm of the flat-out disgusting —a short, sweaty older man sniffing and ogling and licking the semi-naked torsos of young ravers like a fat bearded Gollum; a heightened mother/son attempted incest moment that is interminable and shrill; and endless crotch shots. Whether engaged in sex, pissing, or merely being absently rubbed by their owners hand or someone else’s, crotches are truly the star of the show. But the icing on the foul cake has to be the toe sucking scene, which oddly other accounts fail to mention is perpetrated by Clark himself (no press notes to tell us otherwise, though). It’s a sequence that seems to go on forever in which Clark licks, slurps at and noisily sucks on Math’s toes, eventually even groaning “Oh yeah, oh yeah, fuck my nose with your toe.” Of the many things we wish we could un-experience, the wet, saliva-ey lip smacking noises, and the little rim of grime under the young man’s toe nail would be among the very first things we’d ‘Eternal Sunshine’ away if we could.
Is it porn? Is it art? Does watching it, even loathing it as much as I did, make me somehow complicit in the ongoing validation of Clark’s output? Are these really the questions we should be asking rhetorically when we could be using that time to simply beg Larry Clark to please, please stop? It’s by far the most egregiously indefensible of his films (and yes, we’ve seen “Ken Park”) and watching it feels like having a pervert heavy-breathing his halitosis onto your neck for 87 minutes. With little story, no character development (a suicide makes zero impact on anyone) and no insight at all into a world that exists anywhere outside the mind, and perhaps the trousers, of its director, it’s going to take weeks of showering to rid ourselves of “The Smell of Us.” [F]