Nearly twenty years ago photographer-cum-filmmaker Larry Clark unleashed Kids, a raw, unflinching look at NYC teenagers and their casual and reckless existence. It was as confronting as it was infuriating, a grimy and lurid piece of urban street art masquerading as a docu-drama. Now, Clark returns to the same desolate wasteland of youth he has been obsessed with for the past forty odd years, only this time it’s the summertime of Paris.
With little plot to speak of The Smell Of Us follows a rag-tag bunch of, mostly, wastrels who spend most of their time hanging out skateboarding near the Eiffel Tower. Many of the boys are male escorts who have taken to prostitution via online ads they see on the porn channels they watch on their phones. They make fast cash by selling sexual favours to rich middle-aged, and older, men and women. The money is squandered on drugs, booze, sweatshirts and sneakers.
Their lives are one big vacuous, vicious circle jerk.
The central figures are Mat (Lukas Ionesco), the Michelangelo-looking garçon de la ville, who seemingly wears the same red boxers for days on end, and drifts in a half-stupor, JP (Hugo Behar-Thinières), openly gay, and fatally in love with Mat, and Marie (Diane Rouxel), the hip damsel in the middle (and the only young female speaking part). There’s also Guillame (Ryan Ben Yaiche), Pacman (Théo Cholbi), and Toff (Terin Maxime), the silent videographer - and a reflection of a young Larry Clark circa Tulsa, perhaps? Larry Clark makes a curious cameo as Rockstar, a wretched derelict (but is that him also as the unctuous client sucking Mat’s toes, I couldn’t be sure??)
Clark’s fascination with wasted youth and ruined dreams has been the centre of much of his work since he published his influential book of photographs, Tulsa, in the early 70s. The skateboarding, druggie world has also been prevalent in several of his features, especially Kids, Ken Park (his most controversial movie) and Wassup Rockers. Perhaps partially because of the restricted distribution of Ken Park Clark decided to seek French funding and distribution for The Smell Of Us so he could indulge in his fetishistic sensibility for graphic teenage sex and not have to worry so much about the moral fervor backlash of his homeland.
The rough and dirty sensuality that exudes from the mise-en-scene of Kids, and the incisive drama that punctuates his two best films, Another Day in Paradise and Bully, is entirely missing from The Smell Of Us. Clark’s unashamedly voyeuristic perspective feels all the more uncomfortable, especially as the seventy-two-year-old appears in the movie, in and amongst his so-called muses. Yup, it smacks of Very Dirty Old Man material indeed, as Clark has his camera linger again and again across the crotches of his male actors for no apparent reason than to satisfy his crotchety carnal desires. There is no eroticism to be found in The Smell Of Us, only the odour of passionless selfishness.
And yet, there is something, a certain je ne sais quoi, that draws you in, holds your gaze (most notably in the urban makeshift dance party sequence), even though you are squirming and cringing in your seat. You want to try and understand a little more, why these teenagers are so dissolute and damaged? Then Clark throws Mat’s mother (Dominique Fort) in the mix, in probably the movie’s most awkward, train-wreck scene. Following that comes the movie’s attempt at tragic and dramatic consequence (reminding one of the similar narrative ploy in Kids), but the crunch is hollow and devoid of any meaningful impact.
I wonder if the screenplay, penned by Scribe (Mathias Landias under a pseudonym) and Clark, is semi-autobiographical, with Mat’s character based on Landias’ real-life exploits? The last scene has a sidelined Marie trying fruitlessly to ingratiate herself further with her male entourage by means of sexual abandon. This resonates only so far as the focus shifts beyond her vacant stare to the boys careering on their boards down the street in the background, hooting and hollering. The circle jerk perpetuates, the hangover sets in, and the stench of novella vague stagnates.