Spring Breakers, which made a splash at the Venice International Film Festival in 2012, is a stylish cinematic window onto writer-director Harmony Korine’s debauched fantasies…
Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is a hedonistic-fuelled male fantasy. It could be seen as the writer-director’s own darkly idealised version of the American rites-of-passage known as Spring Break with its notes of excess and debauchery magnified from the perspective of a man obsessed with female beauty and its power, both it over him, and him over it.
Korine’s camera, from the first moment of the film until the last, glides like a caressing hand over scantily clad college-age girls, stopping only to examine those obvious parts of the body that arouse him. He feeds this fantasy with riches, big houses and flashy sports cars, of adoration amongst his peers, and of a confidence to succeed in a criminal underworld that would in reality only lead to destruction (in one form or another). The film is therefore an illusion; a construct of numerous fantasies that collide in the form of four college girls who wish for danger and excitement, and the flashy Floridian crook who provides it for them.
The film has a visual elegance that takes you cosily into this world and shows you how very bad things can happen. The scene in which the girls rob a café to get the money to take them to Florida is a case in point. This is shot from their getaway car as one of their number slowly drives around the building. Her accomplices are seen through the car window making their way through the café with a realistic-looking toy gun and a hammer. When the deed is done and the car is parked by the exit, the girls make their escape. We are not immediately part of the terrifying events taking place in the café as if the crime is a distant, unimportant subplot to them making money. But we know what is going on and we can imagine our own reaction to being faced with a gun-wielding criminal. I felt it was a terrifically well-calculated scene that succeeded because of its implied violence. It also added to Korine’s dreamlike depiction of events because of that sense of distance, as if the events might not be real.
This can be exampled throughout the film, not least the non-linear flourishes depicting events both predating the present and occurring after it. This is achieved with both sound (in the form of voiceover) and vision (in the form of flashbacks and flash-forwards). Elsewhere, the director’s sun-kissed haze that blinds and disorientates by day and the overexposed artificial lighting that does the same by night, enhances this dreamlike state. There’s also a constant reminder through the dialogue that we’re seeing a sort of hyperreality. Faith, the conscientious one who is seen at a prayer meeting before spring break, talks about finding her “spiritual place”, while Brittany reassures the girls during their darker activities to “just pretend it’s a video game. Like you’re in a movie.” Alien, his name alluding to the fact, explains to the girls when he first meets them that he’s “not from this planet”. And when telling the group about his life he says: “This is my dream. I made it come true.”
However, the scene in which James Franco’s gold-toothed crime lord plays Britney Spears’ song Everytime to the girls while they dance around the piano wearing pink ski masks and holding automatic firearms is pure fantasy. It’s the sort of thing concocted when knocked out by a cocktail of recreational drugs and alcohol, where pent up personal desire, sexual frustration and a god complex explodes into a crazy, disorientating and technicoloured narrative that’s almost impossible to explain when conscious. It’s both unsettling and oddly beautiful, the sound of Spears’ melancholy juxtaposed by images of slow-mo brutality as Alien and his newly acquired henchwomen rob spring breakers. Much like experiencing a dream, there are times when you question where the line between reality and unreality is drawn.
In Spring Breakers, it’s all a hallucination. Nothing is real. Only in a male, heterosexual dreamland would young, nubile women have a seemingly universal aversion to clothes: just bikinis here please! So where the film draws its strength, and indeed its story, is Franco’s Alien, whose dream this is. I wondered why the four girls were largely one-dimensional and questioned whether this was a flaw but I feel, in Alien’s mind, he only needs to create the idea. And that can be very simple. Two of the girls are focused solely on following a path to destruction, to leave their boredom behind. These become his favourites, the ones he falls in love with. That Brittany (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), the two girls from the group who admire this life of crime, are practically one and the same, with very little distinguishing their characters from one another, is indicative of their personification through the eyes of Alien. The fact he envisages two beautiful lovers comes as no surprise given he is a man who craves attention and material possessions. Why have one “perfect woman” when you can have two without consequence.
The early part of the story, before Alien meets the girls, is a back-story he creates himself. Fallibility and fear, as seen in Selena Gomez’s Faith and Rachel Corine’s Cotty, are perhaps extensions of his own anxieties but when these two girls decide to leave Alien and return home, he is in effect sending his own doubts packing. He leaves himself with his ideal companions, two women who can satisfy not only his criminal desires but his social and carnal ones too.
If Korine has a problem it’s that Franco is the star of the show but his character only appears halfway through. This is one of the best performances I’ve seen from him, drawing inspiration from Tony Montana in Scarface without caricaturing Al Pacino’s masterful delivery. Franco’s Alien is a nasty piece of work who knowingly inducts Candy and Brittany into his criminal underworld, playing on their openness to be empowered by him. They are knowing participants but he recognises their willingness to be indoctrinated into his way of thinking.
Ultimately, the denouement involves Alien taking on god-like status, two of the girls becoming his disciples. It is understandable given that this is a pipe dream of a possibly friendless university student asleep alone in his dorm room who will awake with his virginity intact. I’m hypothesising of course but it is fitting that Alien is last seen lying down with his eyes closed. His legacy takes the form of Candy and Brittany who are seen driving his sports car around Florida, primed to continue his low-grade criminal empire in his name and image.
Spring Breakers is not for everybody. However, it is a fascinating piece of work that should be applauded for taking the cinematic dream sequence and extending to the length of an entire film. This is very much Korine’s dream; a cinematic presentation of his dark fantasies laid bare in a hyperreal Floridian setting which is personified through four college girls looking for fun and a underworld crook with a god complex. He deserves a pat on the back simply for exposing himself like this. He should also be congratulated for turning something as self-satisfying as this into a piece of work that is both accessible and mainstream.
Its destructive debauchery will turn some viewers away while the complexities of a story that on the surface seem somewhat one dimensional and uninspired will disengage anyone not willing to read between the lines. The film could have done with a greater degree of tension during some of its sequences (mostly in relation to Alien’s war with rival gangster and former friend Big Arch played by Gucci Mane) while Korine’s languid pacing never gets the gear change it needs. Yet, these are minor faults, successfully glossed over by some impressive photography and the excellent James Franco.
Written by Dan Stephens
Directed by: Harmony Korine
Written by: Harmony Korine
Starring: James Franco, Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, Gucci Mane
Released: 2012 / Genre: Drama/Crime / Country: USA / IMDB