What makes a movie exploitative? Not as a genre (exploitation films), but as an invective hurled by critics who deem the film or its scenes, typically of a graphic sexual nature, as exploitative. Does it rest solely with the production and how the director (mis)treats his actors? While some refer to the director's relationship with their subjects, coercive or not, the resulting image is not always telling. To exploit is to take advantage of, but if in the telling the director manages to say something poised, is the exploitation forgiven? Roger Ebert implies as much about David Lynch and Blue Velvet, ultimately un deserving of Isabella Rossellini's talent and agony, terrorized by Dennis Hopper's character.
Such accusations of exploitation are leveled at and unheeded by Larry Clark, visual rhapsodizer of disaffected and rebellious youth and its lurid discontents. By the arrival of his sixth feature, those familiar with his work have settled into a camp, acolyte or opposition.
Written by Clark in collaboration with the French writer Scribe, The Smell of Us is a spiritual sequel to his first feature Kids, set in the 90s during the AIDS epidemic. The plot is looser, though the morals on par. It has been two decades since the release of that movie, explosive in its subject matter, exposing underage sex and drug use in big, bad New York City, and more than forty years since the release of Tulsa (1971), the photo book that revealed much of the same in smalltown, USA. That The Smell of Us takes place now and in libertine Paris, unstymied by sexual mores, potentially renders Clark's notions about youth less incendiary— but by no means less grotesque. Skateboarders are little longer the riotous figures of yesterday, rather a lifestyle brand touted with Supreme logos. More likely Clark's international intrigue was triggered by easier funding and an opportunity to dirty the Palais de Tokyo with ollies and grinds.
The cabal of skateboarders here skews mostly male, plus one female (first timer Diane Rouxel) and one honorary geriatric, Rockstar the homeless drunk (the director himself). The film orbits these teens in crowded clubs and abandoned shacks primarily engaged in fucking, snorting, or smoking. Most sell their bodies. One is groped in a crowded nightclub; another fulfills fantasies via webcam; two casually enlist as male escorts online. Afterwards the boys return to to the comfort of genteel homes, not traphouses or ramshackle apartments. Their flats are furnished with antiques, parents call to check in, or prepare dinner. One boy is chauffeured home by luxury car. The extra cash is used to refuel the cycle, more of the same kicks. In rare material instances there's a box logo hoodie, a pair of Chelsea boots.
Michael Pitt, the only professional actor here, surfaces as a street musician providing interludes along with Dylan on the soundtrack. "Forever Young" underlines the point, though offered from the lips of Larry Clark the sentiment feels predatory. The Smell of Us claims to explore Clark's usual themes in the screen-plagued, internet-addled 21st century, though its effects are marginal. It is only a slight update of Kids with few upgrades, mostly sexual. The extent of his comment on the impact of technology is limited to a personal annotation; at the margins of every scene, a boy captures every nauseating detail on iPhone. He is barely an usher into this world, more like a sideline stand-in for Clark without narrative or thematic reach.
A central protagonist finds itself in Math (Lukas Ionesco) highly sought after with his bo-peep curls. He claims to be strictly gay for pay, unlike his friend JP (Hugo Behar-Thinière) who crushes on him with little hope in an unrequited-love subplot that evokes Mala Noche. (If indeed an allusion, a nice one; Gus Van Sant counts Clark's photographs an inspiration.) JP is the only character in the film to exhibit a genuine desire, comforting Math with quiet encouragement after a long night's work of debasement.
The life of a rentboy comes with a cost, and the affects of prostitution and its abuses (or perhaps all the drugs), manifest on Math's face, vacant, and eyes, wandering. Sometimes he spaces out and mumbles to himself incoherent and resentful snippets about the previous night's customer, the most gruesome of which is a foot fetishist (possibly Rockstar/Clark, though his vigor made it hard for me concentrate) who sucks his toes, each dirty digit relished. The film relentlessly pounds us with such sordid acts and Clark's crotch-gazing cinema clearly favors the young; the camera glides over the genitals and bodies of lissome adolescents, lingering on their abs and skin, palpable with sweat. The adults are noticeably grotesque; saggy women and out-of-touch eccentrics groping at that which escapes them. Youth is a hot commodity and Clark is selling it, too, and watching the film will make you participant in his deviant voyeurism. Currently, there is no theatrical distribution in the U.S., but like all (illicit) things in the modern world, you can find it if you're willing to pay.