During spring break in Florida, four college girls in need of money decide to rob a fast food restaurant. After getting arrested, the girls are bailed out of jail by a local drug/arms dealer (James Franco) and fall under his influence...
Ten minutes of plot spread, none too thickly, over 94 minutes of delirious visuals, Harmony Korine’s latest owes less to his steady directorial hand than to the contributions of his key collaborators: cinematographer Benoit Debie, editor Douglas Crise, and composers Cliff Martinez and Skrillex. Substituting sensory overload for the satisfactions of narrative, the result plays less like a feature film than an extended trailer for itself, a nagging reminder of pleasures permanently deferred, from a filmmaker beguiled by what he professes to despise.
Four girls, bored in the default mode of American teens, yearn to go to Florida for spring break; it’s a necessary rite-of-passage. Finding their savings aren’t enough, three of them carry out a heist on a local restaurant; newly cashed-up, they plunge headlong into a Girls Gone Wild realm of booze, coke, T&A and bass music. They’re soon arrested for narcotics possession, and unable to make bail—until a local hustler, known as Alien, helps them out. But he soon runs afoul of some former business associates, and a showdown looms. . .
'Just pretend it’s a video game," urges one of the girls (I forget which—and they are, anyway, barely differentiated). 'Like you’re in a fucking movie." She’s trying to instil in the other two the courage necessary to carry out that first robbery, but it’s a revealing statement. For all the bared female flesh on display here—and judging from the Beavis & Butthead-like snickers from some of the male critics sitting behind me, the film gets this particular quotient just right—there’s something unconvincing about all this so-called debauchery. The girls might kiss each other, but only for the dudes to admire: there’s no actual desire in it. Likewise, they flash their tits and wiggle their asses—but only for an ever-present array of cameras and smartphones to record. No one actually fucks in this world; it’s all show, pure performance. And as such, merely another symptom of a culture in which, increasingly, one is either a broadcaster (on Youtube, or Twitter, or Is Anybody Up) or one is nothing.
Yet the film seems unaware of this fact—or, if it is aware, elects to do nothing with it. There’s a rich vein of satire to be mined here, but Korine chooses instead to take some clumsy swipes at social critique. (Alien’s acquisitional appetites are meant to represent the dark side—yawwwwwn—of American capitalism.) Even as the script forgoes story development in favour of a series of tableaux—usually, of the girls staring into the camera, striking iconic and/or seductive poses.
The film drew early attention for its casting—and sure, if you know who Vanessa Hudgens or Selena Gomez are, then you might feel a kinky little frisson in seeing them play so determinedly against type. (Within reason: of the four, only Korine’s wife Rachel commits to any onscreen nudity.) But the real honours, in this respect, must go to James Franco, who forgoes his recent performance-art stunts to deliver an actual, old-fashioned performance. As Alien, he’s practically unrecognisable, his features obscured by patchy stubble, shiny silver grills, and desiccated-looking cornrows, and while the result is cartoonish—especially in one extended aria entitled 'Look At My Shit!’, which plays like a wigga version of Mr Burns' 'See My Vest!’—it’s at least sustained by a genuine, goofball conviction.
Much has been made of the possible racism of the finale here, when Debie’s ultraviolet, single-source lighting turns the bared flesh of the bikini-clad assassins a dark, one might almost say Hispanic shade of brown. Having now seen it, I think this criticism misses the point a little—it’s not, after all, as if the cameraman (best known for his work with Gaspar Noé) has bathed other sequences here in anything but the most luridly stylised of hues. It’s rather more telling that, by the end, almost every corpse left in their wake is a black one.
a hollow, enervating experience
Likewise, when Faith’s friends describe to her how they pulled off that robbery in the restaurant—recreating their poses, repeating their lines (basically, variants on Amanda Plummer’s 'honey-bunny’ scene from Pulp Fiction)—she looks frightened, suddenly. As well she should. As played by Gomez, she’s one brown girl amid a whole lot of angry Caucasians, drunk on their own power, and seems for the first time to be apprehending the power of unchecked white rage that runs through the rest of this film like a cold current. There are black faces (and breasts) scattered throughout, but the overwhelming majority of these kids are suburban whites—and as such, their week in the sun constitutes a brief spasm of revolt against the very system they’re poised to inherit.
But this is, perhaps, deeper analysis than this film deserves. Mostly, you go for the ride. Korine’s imagery is associative rather than linear—and initially, at least, this works well: the film opens with a hallucinogenic string of disconnected images, so beguiling and surreal (a baby bong, super-saturated blue skies), you feel almost disappointed when those first, tentative stirrings of narrative begin to assert themselves.
But then, as the storyline proceeds, the flashbacks and cutaways multiply. And abruptly, the editing turns over-literal. "Do you have faith?" Alien asks Gomez’s character (called, sure enough, Faith)—and sure enough, as he says it, we cut to images of her sitting in a prayer circle in Bible study class. . . and then to her standing in front of a stained-glass window in some church or other. Likewise, scenes of the girls talking on their cell phones to their mums back home, reassuring them that all is well, juxtaposed with shots of them snorting rails off the belly of some other, naked girl—or posing with semi-automatics. IRONY!
As the conclusion nears, the film’s surface finally fractures. Shots are replayed, lines of dialogue resurface; suddenly soundtrack and image appear to be operating independently of each other. One exchange, near the end ("Are we gonna do this?" "Sounds like you’re scared. . .") is repeated five times, overlaid each time upon a different set of visuals. Or the line "spring break forever"—which becomes a kind of mantra, echoing across the action. Its tone first celebratory, than elegiac, and finally meaningless.
Were one feeling generous, one could ascribe this to a directorial strategy: set to Cliff Martinez’s trance-y electronic layers, it’s no different, in its way, from a vocal sample in a club track, looped and recontextualised in various guises. But coupled with the awesome banality of the dialogue ("I think that’s the secret to life," declares one of the girls earnestly. "Being a good person"), it eventually comes to feel like padding, a way of filling dead space.
In this respect, Korine occupies an enviable position. A champion of crudeness for its own sake, he took care, in features like Julien Donkey-Boy and Mister Lonely, to reject the conventions of the 'well-made film’—such niceties presumably being a barrier, in his mind, to unfettered self-expression. But this also serves to insulate him from criticism. If you find Spring Breakers a hollow, enervating experience, as I did, well, he can say, that’s kind of the point. (Though of course, if you somehow think it profound and tragic, he’ll probably take that, too.)
Compared to his last effort—the execrable Trash Humpers—this has all the compositional elegance of a late-period Visconti. Still, in the end you have to wonder: is the gonzo sleaziness here a reasonable aesthetic response to the larger sleaziness of the milieu he’s describing? Or is it merely a by-product, the result of a filmmaker too lazy to refine his ideas, and too self-satisfied to care? But even to ponder these questions is to play Korine’s game; either way, he wins. 'Look at my shit!' he’s shouting at us. (And the girls are dancing, titties out . . . And the drop is coming . . .) 'JUST LOOK AT ALL’A MY SHIT!'