Threesomes at the Toronto Film Festival: Critic Karina Longworth weighs in

Categories: Film
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Editor's note: Village Voice media film critic Karina Longworth is currently at the Toronto Film Festival, from where she'll be writing regular blog posts. This is her first in the series.

This is a blog post about two movies that were screened for the press within the first 24 hours of the Toronto Film Festival, both of which feature three-way sex scenes. In Spring Breakers, characters played by James Franco, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson "do it" in a swimming pool; in Do Not Disturb, a French remake of the 2009 American indie Humpday, a bisexual couple played by Asia Argento and Charlotte Gainsbourg seduce a drifter played by Fran├žois Cluzet.

I am mentioning these facts at the beginning of this blog posts in order to attract people who search the internet for information about movie sex scenes -- a segment of the human population which, Google Analytics suggests, far outnumber the segment which actually, like, cares about cinema. To the sex scene searchers, I say, welcome! We will get to what you came here looking for in a moment. But first, a brief primer on French cultural theory.

In the middle of the last century, Situationist International figurehead Guy Debord coined the term "detournement" to refer to the practice of -- to quote, er, Wikipedia -- "turning expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself." In a literal sense, this describes what writer/director Harmony Korine has done with Spring Breakers, his surprisingly moody, savagely satiric and surreal new film starring a trio of barely-legal current and former stars of tween TV (Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson and Vanessa Hudgens) as refugees from an unimpressive college looking to "find themselves" in Florida amidst the annual ritualistic bacchanal, who fall in with a white gangster rapper named Alien, played by James Franco in deep performance (as) art mode.

Reports documenting Breakers' paparazzi-plagued shoot against the backdrop of actual Spring Break 2012 gave the impression that Korine -- the sometime-infant terrible who wrote Kids and last directed the analog video faux-document Trash Humpers - might have been "detourning" the culture that made his stars the bankable names they are by playing it poker-faced, letting the fact that this guy was making a traditional teen party movie serve as some kind of critique in itself of a culture in which, as Franco's character says, Britney Spears "is one of the greatest singers of all time and an angel if there ever was one on earth." Early footage of Franco in character as Alien -- who was inspired by real life rapper Riff Raff, and whose rival is played in the film by Gucci Mane -- suggested Korine might be going the other way, plumbing the artifacts of our moment of easy media opportunism for even easier parody.

The wonderful surprise of Spring Breakers is that, while the film essentially delivers what you might expect from these stars (all of them basically trying to do the Drew Barrymore-in-Poison Ivy vault into adult stardom) and this filmmaker independently of one another, their talents and assets in combination creates something much weirder, deeper, harder to pin down and impossible to write off as "just" a goof, "just" the result of an art filmmaker exploiting stars to skewer the culture they represent, "just" anything.

For one thing, formally Spring Breakers is like no film that its nominal genre has ever seen.The film begins with a luridly saturated, super slow-motion montage of college kids, boys and girls alike mostly topless, cavorting in a spray of booze. It becomes evident that this imagery constitutes the fantasies of Faith (Gomez), Brit (Benson), Candy (Hudgens) and Cotty (Rachel Korine, the director's wife), co-eds who will do whatever it takes to break free of their drab existence for a week in the "paradise" of St. Pete's.

But the opening montage doesn't end when the story begins -- in fact, it comes back again and again in a film which unfolds as an endless montage of repetitions and variations, with "scenes" constantly bleeding into one another, time folding in on itself, memories intruding into fantasies, the present haunted by both past actions and imaginings of the future.

Always a filmmaker concerned with how the American experiences of race, class and breeding dictate the expression of desire, Korine tells us this movie is about "the American Dream" via dialogue; his imagery and use of cinematic language make richer, more complicated statements about the nature of that dream, the weird co-existence of piety and indulgence with which it tends to manifest itself, and the rapidly disappearing line between freedom as a dream ideal and a living nightmare in which "freedom" is interpreted as unfettered consumption and total disregard for the sanctity of human life - or really, anything at all. Yes, Spring Breakers is a movie in which a wigged-out James Franco fucks two teen TV starlets in a swimming pool. But, oh -- it's so much more.

The same cannot be said for Do Not Disturb, the inexplicable French remake of Lynn Shelton's film festival hit Humpday. That film helped launch Mark Duplass as a mainstream romantic-comedic lead, and also was one of a number of American indies made in the second half of the last decade to make a persuasive case for improvisation as a micro-budget authoring technique, in addition to an acting exercise; in other words, the dialogue and finer story details were put together in the editing room from the raw material created on-set by the actors.

Do Not Disturb features a cast of A-list French stars (57 year-old Francois Cluzet, aka the old white guy in The Intouchables, has the role originated by Joshua Leonard when he was 34) and was reportedly made on a seven-figure budget (as opposed to Humpday's mid-five figures).

And yet, the remake is slavishly faithful to its source material, both formally (certain shots seem to have been replicated exactly) and textually (the plot has pretty much been transferred wholesale, cultural differences between Paris and the Pacific Northwest be damned). Its big-budget replication of material that was produced through a handmade, organic process is fascinating because it's so uncanny; with the exception of the addition of a WTF? jailhouse musical number, the copy is pretty much the same as the original, and yet something feels lost, in translation or otherwise.

I can't believe I'm typing these words, but a movie in which Charlotte Gainsbourg wears a strap-on in bed with Asia Argento shouldn't feel so lifeless.

Follow @KarinaLongworth on Twitter.

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