While visual impressions are relatively easy to recall, idealize and reduce to an intellectual abstraction, the same can’t be said about smell. Smell is one of the most fundamental stimuli in social interaction, but can’t be evoked or distorted by the mind and is inextricably linked to a specific time and place. This makes it a challenging concept for an audio-visual medium like cinema, but with The Smell of Us, Larry Clark somehow manages to create a film where body odor plays the leading role. Not since John Waters’ Odorama experiment in Polyester has a film been such a powerful expression of scent.
Both in his photography work and in his feature films, Larry Clark has always been driven by a fascination with ‘capturing the moment’ in teenage lives (he once stated that documenting your First Blowjob is as important as documenting your First Communion). This idea of trying to encapsulate the essence of youth is beautifully illustrated in one scene of The Smell of Us: some of the main characters (a group of upper middle class Parisian skateboarders who hang out behind Le Palais de Tokyo and prostitute themselves for reasons unknown) are attending a wild electro rave, when all of a sudden the bass-heavy beats are replaced by a non-diegetic ‘Ring Them Bells’ by Bob Dylan (a religiously inspired song about little lambs gone astray). In this moment of almost divine ecstasy, an unknown bearded intruder (apparently only visible to the viewer) appears and starts sniffing the sweating crowd with a passion. It feels like the desperate attempt of an outsider to grasp a moment of true spontaneity – or someone aching to relive his own childhood memories in every sensory detail. What was so magical about that time when we were young? Was it something in the air?
How does angelic goldilocks hustler Math (Lukas Ionesco) find inner peace in the middle of this MDMA-fuelled mayhem? He wanders around aimlessly, struggles to keep his balance and seems only vaguely aware of the pandemonium surrounding him. The atmosphere is chaotic, but never hostile. Even though Math is far beyond the point of having a meaningful conversation, he’s treated with camaraderie by his fellow misfits. There’s a feeling of unspoken acceptance. “One of us!” “One of us!” Naked bodies light up like neon torches. United by sweat, solidarity through smell.
Clark has always shown great interest in this togetherness of teenage pariahs: ignored by their parents and unable (or simply unwilling) to conform to societal norms, they look for comfort in equally damaged peers. Math is often seen frolicking with his bosom friend JP (Hugo Behar-Thinières) – an androgynous, dandyish fellow prostitute – with whom he shares everything, especially his body odor. The two boys spend their evenings relaxing on a single bed, always within armpit-smelling distance. Ball sweat is playfully rubbed in faces. Worn garments are exchanged and sniffed with canine curiosity.
The carrier of this particular smell, young skin, plays an equally important part. The kids are constantly being confronted by each other’s nakedness and seem perfectly at ease by it. The film’s visual style reflects their attitude, as the camera hovers over bare bellies, skinny legs and pubes sticking out of boxers. Skin texture is rigorously inspected, sometimes even transformed when heavy pixilation makes the image look like Tachisme paintings. Clark has a profound admiration for these young and able bodies that attempt backbreaking skateboard stunts and perform cunnilingus in public. Yet at the same time, skin is also reduced to a commodity in The Smell of Us, as the teenagers impulsively decide to sell their bodies after they accidentally stumble onto an escort boy website. In making a product out of life’s most valuable gift, they squander all of their youthful energy. The usually rambunctious Math turns into a vegetable and stares blankly at the ceiling when he’s being pounded for cash.
Clark, as in Wassup Rockers, still encourages his teenage subjects to revolt against their adult oppressors, for instance in the paid date-gone-awry scene where an elderly john wakes up lying in a pile of torn up pillow stuffing – looking as ridiculous as the tarred-and-feathered villains in Lucky Luke comics – after Math drugged him and trashed his apartment. The film’s imagery also evokes a strong contrast of new flesh colliding with old flesh (quite literally, as the film opens with a skateboarder crashing into a deadbeat bum named Rockstar – played by Larry Clark himself – lying face-down on the pavement), but the ‘kids versus grownups’ dichotomy of Ken Park is abandoned in The Smell of Us and replaced by a self-fulfilling timeline. At one point, Math is confronted with a reflection of his future self, as his face is mirrored by a sleazy looking guitar player (played by Larry Clark veteran Michael Pitt – who even has the same bright blue eyes as Ionesco). An even grimmer vision occurs when Math and Rockstar get matching skull tattoos on their knuckles, the ink bond suggesting that Math’s fate is sealed. When Rockstar wets himself, the spreading urine stain on his pants is as unstoppable as Math’s destiny. In the background, Michael Pitt strums a song called ‘Streetwalking Zombie’, about a 23-year-old heroin addict turning tricks, who laments the fact that no one remembers her for the teenage beauty queen she once was.
The film portrays Math as entirely oblivious to these sinister omens and overflowing with youthful hubris. He’s filmed as an object of idyllic beauty and constantly juxtaposed by images of other Adonises (such as Donatello’s David, Jean Broc’s Hyacinth and Cotton Club crooner Cab Calloway). Even his admirers see him as a mere pretty picture: “I love those lips!” a grey-haired client gleefully cheers when he sees Math resting his eyes, lying on the couch and looking like a Botticelli angel. But even pictures fade, which is illustrated in the poignant scene where Math’s mother throws her naked decrepit body onto her son after they’ve both been out on separate benders. The heinous act is overlooked by an eerie bust of an infant with a blank expression, suggesting that children, inherently innocent, will be inevitably moulded into what their parents make of them. The room is covered with family photos, portraying Math’s mother as the feisty Saint-Germain-des-Prés party girl she was in the 70s. All that remains now is an irresponsible teenager wrapped in wrinkled old skin ‘Nothing’s happening!” she complains, like a sulking schoolgirl on a disappointing prom night.
While eternal youth is an illusion, adolescence can be preserved by carving it into stone, as the various shots of Putto statues in The Smell of Us suggest. In a way, the same can be said about Clark’s body of work, as he’s been documenting the same troubled teens for almost half a century now. There is a timeless quality to these self-destructive youths, who never seem to avoid the pitfalls of previous generations: the faces change, but the song remains the same. This idea of interchangeability is highlighted near the end of The Smell of Us when JP commits suicide. At first, we see the young man walking lifelessly to his doom like a faceless mannequin. After he plunges to his death, the scene cuts to a Rad Hourani fashion show where the models march around with the same emotionless strut as JP, wearing white masks. Marie (Diane Rouxel) – the only girl among the daredevils on wheels – attends the spectacle and looks dressed for a funeral. A song is commenting on the proceedings: “I’ll miss you.. so bad. But it’s not sad, it’s not sad.” Replacements are already waiting in line to become screw-ups like JP. This is obvious early on in the film, when substantial parts of JP’s and Math’s story arc (such as their decision to join the world’s oldest trade), are filled in by two other young boys: Guillaume (Ryan Ben Yaiche) and Minh (Adrien Binh Doan). The elliptical narrative structure heightens this feeling of fragmentation. Instead of presenting a conventional story line (as prescribed in the original, autobiographical screenplay of Clark’s newest boy wonder Matthieu Landais), the film only tries to catch a glimpse of the lives of some random teenagers, a kaleidoscopic portrait of the YouTube generation. The Smell of Us reads like a sketchbook where poses, glances and compositions are more important than character development and as such greatly resembles Clark’s photo albums Tulsa and Teenage Lust.
The Smell of Us is Clark’s elegy of youth. There is something quite touching about hearing the old maestro perform an a capella rendition of Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’ during the final credits (not coincidentally accompanied by his former muse Jonathan Velasquez from Wassup Rockers) in his raspy, Lee Marvin-esque voice, as if the 72-year-old eternal teenager is finally ready to come to terms with his age and hopes that his subjects make the most of their youth. “May God bless and keep you always, may your wishes all come true.” It sounds like a sincere sentiment. Clark honors his actors even further during the final credits, by portraying them in a truly heartfelt manner, with footage of all young cast members (even those with virtually no screen time) casually goofing off in front of the camera. And yet, ironically, the ones involved might not have such fond memories of the film’s production: Clark fired several of his leading actors halfway through the shoot, others saw their roles substantially reduced due to last-minute rewrites and Lukas Ionesco’s mother (Eva Ionesco who gained infamy in the 1970s when her own mother pressured her into erotic photography at a terribly young age) went on the record and called Clark a pedophile. In interviews following the film’s release, the actors were scathing about Clark’s modus operandi. In a piece by Télérama, his professionalism is questioned by actors Diane Rouxel and Terin Maxime (who plays Toff, a character who, not unlike Clark in his younger days, is constantly filming his friends’ escapades). In the extensive Cahiers du Cinéma issue, Hugo Behar-Thinières doubts if Clark will ever make a film again. While this may be a somewhat presumptuous statement, even if The Smell of Us should turn out to be Larry Clark’s last film, it will be the most beautiful swan song imaginable.