When the first stills of Spring Breakers came out, it seemed Harmony Korine’s improbable foray into the fluoro-bikinied world of teens on Florida vacation – starring Justin Bieber’s squeaky-clean other half Selena Gomez– would be a gimmick the DIY-grime veteran could never pull off. But it proved to be a dizzyingly weird highlight of the Rotterdam Film Festival, held last week far from beach-party beer bongs in the snowy Netherlands.
Gomez plays bible-loving Faith, who accompanies three less wary pals (fellow Disney and family-channel actresses, plus Korine's wife) on a spring break they finance by robbing a diner. From the slow-mo, oneiric crime sequence, which blends brutal threats, candy-pink ski-masks and Nicki Minaj's Moment 4 Life, things only get weirder when they fall in with Alien, a loopily unpredictable drug-dealing G played by a gold-toothed, corn-rowed James Franco. Their bond develops unexpectedly, the most surreal scene of all seeing Alien serenade the gun-toting spring-breakers with Britney Spears on his poolside piano.
The way Korine effervescently derails conventional power dynamics, making the girls into radical outlaws within a trash-culture playground, isn’t so far from Tarantino's Django Unchained. But as with Korine's Trash Humpers, there's a hazily fevered, near-spiritual beauty to it all – rarer still in that this time it doesn't aestheticise social deprivation, but jiggling, tanned skin and blue-varnished nails. What’s so intriguing about this odd union of the sublime and the exuberantly tasteless is that it’s neither wholly ironic nor wholly fetishistic, its open-minded lack of snideness leaving Korine’s stature as genuine renegade intact.
Rotterdam’s always had a penchant for films about extreme behaviour. Polish director Michal Marczak’s intriguing documentary Fuck For Forest (coming out in the UK in April) had its world premiere at the fest. It gets close-in and intimate with Berlin-based NGO Fuck For Forest, a cluster of neo-hippies who hold public orgies and sell web access to home-made porn to raise money for the environment – a lucrative gig. The ease with which the much-maligned, Norway-funded activist group garners participation from random strangers wanting to realise their sexual fantasies surprises. We eventually follow FFF to the Amazon, where they negotiate both ayahuasca and local realities.
Jeremy Xido’s beautifully shot Death Metal Angola was another stand-out documentary. It takes us to the bombed-out city of Huambo and epicentre of Africa’s hardcore metal scene, where intense noise provides the cathartic soundtrack for a war-ravaged generation determined to bring their community together for Angola's first-ever national rock concert.
French director Olivier Assayas's Something in the Air - set for May UK release - breathed new life into the much-filmed era of Paris '68, avoiding nostalgia in its sprawling depiction of youth activists caught up in the time’s revolutionary tide. Talented newcomer Charles Metayer plays a painter and budding filmmaker whose political ideals fade.
Also set in Paris is bleakly menacing, stylish study in narcissism Simon Killer, from New Yorker Antonio Campos. In it, a disarming yet moodily volatile American graduate (Brady Corbet) aimlessly adrift in the city gets in over his head after shacking up with a prostitute (Mati Diop) and embarking on a scheme to end their financial desperation.
The festival's main Tiger section discovers emerging talent – divisive Clip from Serbian director Maja Milos (interviewed here) was a 2012 winner. One of this year’s best was Halley from Mexico’s Sebastian Hofmann, an impressive blend of visceral gross-out and elegant, restrained melancholy in which a walking-dead night security guard in a gym finds it increasingly hard to hide the fact his body is decomposing. From the buzzing of flies to the scarab-blue of morgue corpses, the trappings of death are indulged in with a zeal which fascinated and appalled.