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Rachel Korine packs heat in Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine's most subversive act yet — going mainstream

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A great deal has been made of how Spring Breakers will affect Gomez and Hudgens' careers, with a fair bit of finger-wagging at both the women (purportedly for sullying their reputations and devaluing their stock) and at Korine (for hoodwinking these naive youngsters into his web of depravity). In a March 10 article on the front page of The New York Times arts section titled "Gosh, We're Bad Now!," Jon Caramanica casts the women as fallen teen idols and questions the wisdom of their decision to take part in the film.

From watching the movie, though, it's easy to see why the stars signed on: the chance to escape pigeonholing, and maybe recall what it means to feel surprise making a movie. Shedding every last vestige of his pretty-boy demeanor, Franco transforms into a hilariously cheesy low-rent thug, frontin' and stuntin' as he tries to lure the girls into his world. One of the film's funniest scenes features Alien showing off his guns, money and dark tanning oil, ranting about the American Dream like Gatsby gone gangsta. Another, in which he sits at his poolside piano and regales the girls with Britney Spears' "Everytime," may be the ultimate distillation of Korine's oeuvre: the point where irony, sincerity, garishness and beauty dissolve into a moment of inexplicable enchantment.

Selena Gomez, Rachel Korine and Harmony Korine on set. - COURTESY OF A24
  • Courtesy of A24
  • Selena Gomez, Rachel Korine and Harmony Korine on set.

Though Gomez's participation in the project raised a lot of eyebrows, the role is hardly a stretch for the actor, as Faith's name pretty much sums up her character. Still, she handles it well — her terror and fragility are palpable as she fends off Alien's repulsive advances. (Like much else about the movie, its attitude toward religion is more ambiguous than you might expect; pro wrestler and Hendersonville resident Jeff Jarrett is terrific in a brief role as Faith's youth group pastor.) As Candy and Brit, Hudgens and Benson make a convincing pair of unrepentant bad girls. Their characters are almost interchangeable, though that may be by design — as if buying into the forced gaiety of spring break robbed the girls of individuality.

For all the talk about the impact the film will have on the Disney stars, though, it stands to do even more for their lesser-known co-star. This isn't Rachel Korine's first appearance in one of her husband's films: She was in 2007's Mister Lonely, 2009's Trash Humpers and last year's short film The Lotus Community Workshop, shot at a Nashville roller rink with Val Kilmer. But it's certainly her most visible, in terms of both screen time and profile.

As Cotty, Korine delivers the most nuanced performance of the four female leads. Where the other three roles are fairly two-dimensional archetypes, Cotty stands out as a pouty, pink-haired, gum-popping Lolita who's eager for trouble until it comes. It's a quality Korine brandishes to chilling effect in the film's most unsettling scene, in which Cotty cavorts with a cadre of creepy dudes in jockstraps who snort drugs off her naked torso. One tries to get it on with her as she mocks and torments him, calling him a "little bitch." The sense of sexually charged menace and impending violence is close to unbearable.

"That was the scene I was the most nervous about," Rachel says. "Obviously I had to kiss the guy, and I didn't know what that was going to be like. That was very uncomfortable in the beginning, but it was amazing once we got in there and [Harmony] called 'Action.' It's like it was another person. I don't even really have any memory of doing it."

As for her topless scenes, she's remarkably unfazed. "No, surprisingly, I was pretty comfortable doing it," she says. "I don't know if it was because it was Harmony directing, and I obviously feel safe doing anything he asks of me, but it didn't seem like a big deal to me."

But there's more to Rachel Korine's portrayal than exhibitionism. Even as Cotty participates in the spring break mayhem, she is somehow detached from it. Take the robbery scene, for example — Brit and Candy are the rampaging burglars, Faith has no knowledge of the crime, and Cotty, circling the restaurant in the getaway car, is in her own world, silently taking everything in. Korine, brandishing a mischievous twinkle in her eyes, imbues the character with a certain mystery and aloofness, a fragile mix of daring and vulnerability.

"She's like a vicious angel," Harmony Korine says of her performance.

It doesn't hurt that her appearance is more compelling than the more traditional Hollywood glamour ideal. Between her porcelain-doll complexion, gentle features and faraway eyes, she possesses the kind of beauty that makes it seem like she's always being rendered in soft focus. And yet she gravitates toward the kind of uninhibited roles that have made cult favorites of Charlotte Gainsbourg or Asia Argento. She's a surprise to the film's early viewers too.

"I thought she was excellent," says Jacob Pepper, an art director at advertising giant Draftfcb's San Francisco office. Pepper and co-worker Jeremy Arth, a senior producer at the agency, caught the film in Austin while attending SXSW's Interactive tech conference. "She was the most believable of the girls. She was exciting to watch. I was surprised that she was the best one of the four."

Arth agrees. "I thought she was incredible," he says. "She completely made herself vulnerable, and totally put herself out there, which is what you need if you want to get pulled into that story."

Filmmaker Michael Tully directed Rachel Korine in his Nashville-shot movie Septien, which premiered in 2011 at Sundance. An offbeat Southern Gothic dramedy about a recalcitrant, gas-huffing former high school football star who suddenly reunites with his two oddball brothers after an unexplained 18-year absence, the film still airs on IFC and Sundance Channel. She plays Savannah, the mysterious companion of a sinister plumber who's 50 or so years her senior.

"Rachel's on-screen presence is pure and effortless in a way that can't be taught," says Tully, the only filmmaker besides Harmony Korine who's directed her in a feature-length movie. "When we shot our film, it was as if she wasn't even acting. She just was. She has that intuitive gift you pray for when you set out to cast a movie. It's like what Altman said: 85 percent of directing is casting."

Septien wasn't Rachel Korine's first appearance at Sundance. She played one of two Mennonite sisters in Nashville filmmaker and artist Brent Stewart's short film "The Dirty Ones," which screened at Sundance in 2009.

"She's got a lot of raw natural talent, and is very easy to direct," Stewart says. "And she gets really passionate about the project."

Rachel was all of 9 years old when Harmony first rose to notoriety as the screenwriter of Larry Clark's scandalous 1995 film Kids. And it was only 10 or so years ago, while Rachel was still in high school, that she got her first peek at her husband's twisted oeuvre — the operative word being "peek." Her introduction was Harmony's polarizing 1997 directorial debut Gummo, an uncompromising and utterly original freak show of white-trash nihilism.

"My parents were pretty strict," says Rachel, who turns 27 in April. "I rented Gummo from Blockbuster and waited till my dad had gone to sleep. And so I snuck into the living room and put it in. I think it was the scene where the girls were jumping on the bed and had X's on their boobies. And all of the sudden I turn around and see my dad is looking through the door. When that scene came on, he stormed in and grabbed it out of the DVD player. He said, 'This is not wholesome,' and sent me to bed. He wouldn't let me watch it."

It was through Brent Stewart that Harmony first met Rachel. Stewart's wife, Diana, had known her since she was 11 or so. One day, the Stewarts were visiting with Rachel when Diana suggested someone should put her in a music video.

"I think it was like eight years ago," Harmony says. "She was much younger than me. Brent called me up and said, 'Hey, you should meet this girl. She's special.' "

Harmony had recently moved back to Nashville, and was focusing on getting his life back on track after some seriously drugged-out years in New York. He headed over to the Stewarts' apartment.

"I thought she was soooo beautiful," Harmony says, recalling the first time he saw Rachel. "I was like, 'Whoa! This is crazy.' " Before long, Harmony cast her in his video for Bonnie Prince Billy's "No More Workhorse Blues." Already, he knew he was interested in more than a professional relationship.

"I think I tried to take her out or something," Harmony says, "and her mom called me up and was like, 'What's your intention with my daughter?' And I said, 'I think she has star potential.' " He laughs, realizing how he must have sounded.

"And I really meant it. And then her mom hung up on me." More cackles.

"I was just awkward," he continues. "And I was just getting my own life back together. ... But she really wasn't interested in me at that point."

So what exactly was it that Harmony saw in Rachel that made him persist?

"She just had this way about her," he says. "And I liked that she was really kind of ... how can I say it ... she was really beautiful, but she also had some good ghetto tendencies. She would just, like, eat Cheetos and drink beer. And it's kind of what I'd been looking for my whole life."

Stewart, who shot and edited the Bonnie Prince Billy video, offers his own insight into the romance. "Rachel drove a big white Cadillac with a glovebox full of plates and silverware," he says, "which was right up Harmony's alley."

  • Photography by Michael W. Bunch. Hair and makeup by Betsy Briggs Cathcart (
  • Rachel and Harmony Korine

The couple married in 2007. They have a 4-year-old daughter, Lefty Bell Korine.

During a photo shoot at Fort Houston, a creative cooperative near Greer Stadium, Harmony and Rachel are clearly buzzing after their recent jaunt around Europe. On his iPhone, Harmony shows me photos of two French magazines featuring Spring Breakers on the cover — popular cultural magazine Les Inrockuptibles and Cahiers du Cinéma, one of the most influential film magazines in the world.

Meanwhile, the woman of the hour poses for the camera in jeans and a pink bikini top. Rachel is far more modest than her alter ego Cotty, and it takes her a couple of minutes to feel comfortable surrounded by strangers. But once she's had a couple of minutes to warm up, she's working it, flashing a faint but impish grin, like a naughty Mona Lisa.

An onlooker suggests she flip off the camera for a few shots. She goes along with it, middle finger extended out toward the camera, then playfully teasing her lips. The possibility of putting one of these shots on the cover gets discussed.

"That's going to go over really well at Lefty's school," Rachel says.

Next, it's time to photograph the couple together. Rachel is visibly relieved to slip on her Simpsons T-shirt. Meanwhile, Harmony — ever the beacon of convention and propriety — puts on a Tupac sweatshirt.

"It's meant for a size triple-extra-schlub," he says in his best Borscht Belt patter. "You could fit, like, two dudes in here. This is definitely my look."

As the photographer packs up, Rachel shares an amusing story about her first interaction with Selena Gomez. Upon reading the script, Gomez was so interested that she wanted to fly to Nashville the next day, mother in tow, to audition at the Korines' old house on Belmont — which featured an extensive collection of some of the edgiest and most provocative artwork and photography you're likely to see in Nashville.

"We really, really wanted her for the role," Rachel says. "So the goal was to not freak her out. We Googled her and found out she was from Texas, and thought, well, they're probably pretty conservative, and with the Disney background. So we immediately took down all of the offensive artwork. Anything with a penis on it, anything like that. And then I spent about 20 minutes just sort of prepping Harmony, telling him, 'Shake her mother's hand. Look her in the eyes. Proper manners.' "

When the next day arrived, Rachel put on her sweetest little sun dress, and the couple tried be prim and proper as they greeted their visitors.

"And the first thing Selena said was that they had just watched Trash Humpers the night before, and they loved it," Rachel says. "So we took a deep breath."


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