By Alan Mattli
Now in its 18th year, Harmony Korine’s career seems not only to have come of age but full circle as well. In 1995, he burst onto the scene as the writer of Larry Clark’s Kids, dealing with the sexual debauchery of New York’s inner city youth. In subsequent projects, both as a writer and a director, the self-proclaimed disciple of Werner Herzog, Jean-Luc Godard, John Cassavetes, and Leos Carax further embraced experimentation and subversion, from teenage vandalism (Gummo) and satanic regurgitation orgies (The Diary of Anne Frank Pt. II) to pure dadaism (Trash Humpers), building a reputation as a demented hipster genius, as indie cinema’s underground enfant terrible. Although Spring Breakers, Korine’s sixth feature, may seem like a break away from his usual terrain – not least because of its intentionally misleading marketing –, it is a descendant of the iconoclastic Kids at heart, a violent, unnerving dissection of who and what defines contemporary American culture.
And yet, Spring Breakers has all the credentials of a mid-March throwaway movie: a topic that ties in with its release date, well-known Disney Channel actresses, a jaunty beach setting where beautiful young people in bikinis are dancing to a score written by dubstep figurehead Skrillex. Thanks to a PR campaign deviously intent on highlighting these aspects, this has created a sense of preconception among audiences and critics alike, fostering the expectation that Harmony Korine’s latest is nothing but a cheap cash-in, a shamelessly exploitational film haphazardly building a flimsy plot around endless montages of partying college students, most of them nude and female.
Admittedly, to say the movie does not deliver on this promise would be grossly inaccurate. At first, it does seem like the story of Faith, Candy, Cotty, and Brit (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Rachel Korine, and Ashley Benson respectively, though neither the characters’ nor the actresses’ names matter too much as the latter trio becomes more and more indistinguishable from one another as the film progresses) is little more than an excuse to undress them as well as multitudes of their peers: in order to raise enough money to spend spring break at a popular Florida resort, the college girls, evoking the exploits of Pussy Riot, don skiing masks, hold up a diner, skip town and head southwards. What follows is a string of wild parties, most of them shot in feastful slow motion and fetishistic close ups.
It’s exploitative, yes, but also deeply cyncial because Korine by no means condones the decadence he is conjuring up on screen. His glossy exhibition of naked bodies, phallic symbols ranging from bottles and funnels to children’s balloons, and women gleefully accepting their being reduced to mere objects of carnal desire is a furious indictment of the original advertisement’s target audience. Korine all but spits in the faces of those who – he thinks – are filling the multiplexes in the hope of seeing exposed flesh. In what in some instances may seem more hypocritical than sardonic, he shoves the lewd imagery down the spectators’ throats reveling in the unease he creates using audiovisual excess – DP Benoît Debie and sound designer Aaron Glascock prove to be venerable co-conspirators – and discarding euphemisms and innuendo.
Just as much as the film exposes the base instincts of its audience, though, it takes issue with the subject matter, enticing to so many, it is presenting, taking the spring breakers’ mantra, the obsession with doing only what feels good, after likening it to Roman orgy culture, to an even uncannier extreme. In its second half, invoking Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, the movie’s “heroes” turn to nihilistic violence when they encounter a drug-dealing rapper named Alien (James Franco), who, intrigued by the women’s fervour, invites them into his world of designer products, golden accessories, and decadent waste, of drug trafficking, gun collections, and gang wars. As Alien puts it, his life is the true embodiment of the American Dream; “stackin’ change”, interested exclusively in one’s own amusement.
And even though his entering the film marks the point at which the dizzying chaos of Spring Breakers morphs into confused, near-fatal aimlessness, culminating in a somewhat hollow finale, Franco’s energetic, enigmatic, wholly unpredictable performance stands tall as perhaps the most striking element in Korine’s vividly imperfect, often uncomfortable, profoundly stirring fever dream. He seems like the evolutionary apex of the college holidaymakers he himself refers to as low-life “scum”; a self-righteous, hedonistic criminal taking pride in renouncing responsibility, defined by his paradoxical mantra “Spring break… spring break forever”. It is a gloomy picture Korine paints of a society caught up in and mesmerized by its own self-indulgence.