The dirty old man hanging out with all those oversexed Paris teenagers in “The Smell of Us” is none other than the voyeuristic pic’s director, Larry Clark. Usually, he’s the one behind the camera, but in what amounts to a French “Kids,” Clark can be seen passed out in the opening scene, spilled across the steps of the Palais de Tokyo as skaters swarm around him. Nearly 20 years have passed since Clark’s debut stunned the world — and 30 more since the first photos in his provocative “Tulsa” book were taken – yet his focus remains, as the song says, forever young.
Somehow, the fact that these are French kids makes the film seem less likely to shock the world, even though the kinks are far more explicit here than anything but “Ken Park” — not that Clark is any stranger to the NC-17 rating, the relevance of which he handily undercuts, simply by reminding that in the Internet era, minors can see (and do) far worse online.
But French youth have a reputation for sexual precocity, and virginity seems a distant memory for the cluster of young hellions at the center of “The Smell of Us”: relatively posh middle-class teens with nicknames like Pacman and Babyface who have unwittingly bought into a consumer culture that sells faux rebellion as a form of creative individual expression (via skate brands like Supreme). Posers in search of personality, these teens are the target market, and yet, for the time being, they also possess a commodity more valuable than money: their youth.
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Whereas adults were all but absent from the world of “Kids,” here they interface with the underage characters in all sorts of scandalous ways, from the creepy bearded guy who goes around sniffing their armpits at a rave party to the pervy old foot fetishist who squeals, “Fuck my nose with your toes!” These scenes, plus a handful of others hung up on the bodily aromas of teenage boys, explain the film’s unfortunate title. (While unsolicited, a better one might have been “Comme des garcons.”)
Now in his 70s, Clark partnered with French poet Scribe to ensure the authenticity of his portrait — something he also achieves by intercutting digital footage shot on in-scene devices — though it lacks the structure of his stronger Harmony Korine-written collaborations. Four of the lead characters work as escorts to raise cash, allowing one of their friends to tag along and film their escapades. This young voyeur could be a stand-in for Clark, who started out 50 years ago snapping candid portraits of his junkie friends. While still a bit weird, in the era of sexting and selfies, it’s not hard to accept a kid with an iPhone documenting his peers as they screw, skate and smoke.
An outsider among outsiders, Clark plays the brain-fried and incontinent Rockstar, keeping his own screen time to a minimum (just a whisker more than Michael Pitt, who appears briefly as a grungy street musician). Rockstar is just one more admirer of the pic’s sad protag, an angelic hustler named Math, misleadingly innocent-looking with his delicate features and Raphaelite locks. This key role falls to Lukas Ionesco, the son of boundary-testing director Eva Ionesco (whose photog mom, Irina, posed her provocatively as a young girl), which may explain how easily he manages to set aside his inhibitions for Clark’s camera.
Boys and girls, young and old, everyone wants a piece of Math. (Clark even films himself getting a matching skull tattoo.) One of the big differences between the coy homoeroticism of the director’s earlier work and “The Smell of Us” is the fact that most of the sexual activity here is gay. Nearly all the teens’ clients are older men, and even though Math only has sex for cash, his best friend, JP (Hugo Behar-Thinieres), makes no secret about his romantic feelings. “We’re in 2013, all the boys are fags,” jokes their frustrated pal Marie (Diane Rouxel), who can’t find anyone to accept her sexual favors, despite being the only girl in the group.
For half a century, Clark has been documenting the transgressive behavior of teens, with a special emphasis on scabby-kneed skater boys and the punk chicks who hang around them. Half the soundtrack seems as old as the characters, but then again, by this point, skating is a hand-me-down hobby (it’s almost more common to see guys Gus Van Sant’s or Spike Jonze’s age doddering on boards these days).
Unlike past generations, these kids don’t have anything to rebel against. They don’t really even need the money they make from escorting (Math certainly doesn’t), which is where auds’ moral outrage might set in. Of course, some will claim that Clark is exploiting his subjects (this project had a notoriously rocky production, alienating some of the original cast, covered in detail by the French press), though the pic is far from pornographic. Instead of trying to excite, the helmer chronicles a kind of sickening numbness. This is something new in Clark’s body of work — which, thanks to this project’s ripe olfactory focus, can now boast its own body odor.