By Alan Travers (Galway, Ireland, https://alantravers.com/)
Harmony Korine has a twisted sense of humour…
And that might just be this film’s saving grace. Spring Breakers is a movie that I can’t believe ever got made. It’s a commercial Hollywood film about a group of college girls going on Spring Break and getting caught up in the world of criminals. But it’s directed like a piece of absurd poetry by an experimental art-house director and shot interspliced with repeating montages of neon colours by a DoP who is famous for his dizzying, head-melting camera moves in Gasper Von Noe’s pieces such as Enter The Void.
It’s a movie that the majority of people will hate. Just do a quick Google search and see how angry people are that this film was ever made in the first place. Some reviewers throw a frustrated “one star” at the end of their review and title it “94 minutes of my life I’ll never get back”. And, it’s true. It’s a frustrating film full of repetition, some bad acting and a terrible plot full of holes.
But all of this is irrelevant to the overall point of the film. It’s not meant to be a plot-driven film with a linear narrative. The film opens with a huge beach party montage to blaring dub music. This montage, along with numerous other shots in the film are repeated and shown in dreamy cuts over-and-over again, often in the middle of a piece of dialogue or an exchange between characters. The film uses repetitive imagery and symbolism to create a kind of piece of visual poetry – only it’s a crude and sarcastic poem.
The overall message that Korine seems to try and convey can be argued, or even just guessed. It’s not even apparent that he knows himself. You could say that his central theme seems to be pointing at the idea that if we give in to our vices, they will eventually be the end of us. Rapper/drug guru “Alien” (James Franco in an irritating, yet brilliant role) is, oddly enough, our protagonist. He gives in to his own vices (the forever bikini-clad girls) and adds them to his collection of “shit” (“look at all my sheeat!”), but is ultimately destroyed by his desire to impress the girls by engaging in a turf war with a rival gang of drug-dealers. Alien’s story seems to be showing us how if we give in to a hedonistic lifestyle, it will be our ultimate destruction.
The film is certainly crude. It’s overly-graphic in its portrayal of the hedonistic lifestyles of the spring breakers. The camera lingers on slow-motion shots of topless girls being sprayed with beer on the beach. We see low shots focusing on girls’ crotches and there’s the repeated symbolism of fellatio (girls suggestively sucking ice lollies, Vanessa Hudgens giving head to the words “Spring Break Bitch!” scrawled on her college notebook). All of these shots on repeat, edited in a slow-motion montage to terrible dub music. It’s enough to make my girlfriend turn around to me mid-movie and say “I’m not a feminist, but I’m very offended by this”.
My response to this was “stick with it, he’s building up the ridiculousness to make a point”. But to be honest, I was playing my cards without looking at them on this one. I thought that Korine must have a point to make for such cartoon-like gratuitous female-nudity. And I think he did. Maybe. For all the repeated shots of girls being dominated by a male culture – during the beach party scenes topless girls are on all fours as college guys spray beer all over them from beer bottles held between their legs, a naked girl is used as a “cocaine table” where she is also groped and violated, Rachel Korine’s character Cotty is verbally sexually harassed by a group of drunken students – we still end up with a sense that the girls are the ones in charge here.
The four girls create a juxtaposition to the hedonistic female-subjugated world around them. They are completely in control. Alien tries to “buy” the girls to add to his collection, but they end up owning him. Faith is the first of the girls to go back home, followed shortly by Cotty. Faith is pure of heart and religion. She seems to be on a soul-searching mission, trying to avoid temptation. Cotty gives in to the hedonistic desires of the male-dominated society around her. Both are sent home in exodus (in mirrored scenes). Candy and Brit are the two remaining girls and, from the beginning, they are the girls who are in charge. They are the two who robbed the fast food establishment (in a very aggressive manner) and they are the two who Alien tries to add to his collection of “sheeat”. The girls quickly show us who is in charge this whole time after a disturbing scene where they force Alien to give head to a loaded gun in his mouth.
It seems that Korine is showing us how the girls are using their sexuality to their advantage – a weapon over the male world. Suddenly the topless girls sucking lollipops in the repeated montages don’t seem so subjugated. It seems more like they are dominating the brainless males around them, armed with their weapons of sexuality. Perhaps, this is why Korine keeps repeating the party montages over and over throughout the film, trying to get us to see it differently as the film progresses.
This could be the thought-process behind his casting choices also. He cast Selena Gomez (one-time Justin Bieber girlfriend and Disney princess) as Faith, a very different role than anything she has played before. Vanessa Hudgens of High School Musical portrays Candy, one of the two “dangerous” spring breakers. Although, Hudgens has portrayed a scantily-clad character before in Zack Synder’s Sucker Punch, she and Gomez are both known for their bubblegum “pretty-in-pink” acting careers. Casting them as bikini-clad criminals in a drug-dealing world of hedonism in an erotic poem directed by a notorious, controversial art-house film-maker is a bold move.
Overall, the movie is flawed but enjoyable. Enjoyable as a piece of visual poetry, but quite difficult to watch. It’s not so art-house that it lacks a clear narrative or storyline. It is quite linear when it comes to story. However, the story comes second to the visuals as a method of film-making, and this is what most of the angry reviewers online have missed.
It’s far from brilliant, but its saving grace is Korine’s twisted sense of humour, which he translates visually. One of the most memorable scenes of the movie (and possibly the last couple of years) is a scene where Alien sits at a grand piano playing “something sweet and uplifting”, Britney Spears’ “Everytime” while the bikini-clad girls wearing pink balaclavas dance around him with shotguns against the sunset. It is then cut to a montage of the girls and Alien taking over the drug-world in hyper-violent slow-motion scenes. It’s one of the funniest scenes I’ve seen in a long time and proves that so long as Harmony Korine doesn’t lose his sense of humour, his films still stand a chance.