A Serbian FilmSeptember 8, 2010
Further to the extended intro here.
Let me start this off by stating that I am not recommending this film to anyone. I want that known straight away. I will happily urge you to watch films where people have their mouths sewn to each other’s arseholes, or where crazy couples mutilate their own genitals in spooky forests, but I will not urge anyone to watch A Serbian Film. Of course, anyone who wishes to view this flick themselves can do so but, whereas I am happy to write about it or discuss it, I don’t ever want it said that someone watched it because of me. My sense of mischief only goes so far.
The film marks the directorial debut of one Srđan Spasojević, who co-wrote the screenplay with Serbian film critic Aleksandar Radivojević, and stars actors whom a cursory bit of research suggests are amongst some of the most popular and respected performers in their native Serbia. A Serbian Film debuted at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas, this March and reports tell of an initial audience reaction of stunned silence. Recently, it was due to be shown at Film Four Frightfest in London on August 29th but was eventually pulled after the BBFC demanded 49 cuts totalling 4 minutes of footage. The filmmakers boast that it was entirely independently financed, without any state-funding, and that Serbian distributors are currently uncertain as to what to do with it.
The story centres on Milosh, a semi-retired Serbian porn actor of some renown. He’s living the quiet life with his beautiful wife and young son but his financial future is far from certain and he is concerned about earning more money for his family. He is approached by a former colleague who tells him of a new player in the Serb porn business willing to pay extraordinary amounts of money to performers who will participate in his new “art-porn” projects. Milosh meets with Vukmir, the passionate and giddily perverse pornographer, and is promised an extremely generous amount of money to take part in the films on the condition that he is not informed beforehand of the precise details of the shoots, he is merely to appear where and when he is told and to perform. Milosh reluctantly agrees but soon finds himself in impromptu porn scenarios more sadistic and debased than even he can stomach. He doesn’t want to go any further but by then he is in way over his head and Vukmir and his shadowy goons have their own plans that they are determined to see through to their utterly soul-shattering, infernal end. To say things go from bad to worse is something of an understatement as the film embarks on swift downward spiral into one of the most vividly rendered experiences of hell ever committed to screen.
A Serbian Film is a horror movie in the undeniable sense that it is genuinely horrifying and one of the most transgressive films ever made. The content that has made it so controversial is essentially wide-spectrum sexual violence. By that I mean probably the worst acts of sexual violence available to the human imagination feature in this film. The tone here, rather than being sombre and grim, or even the dark, twisted humour of The Human Centipede, is one of pure, seething rage. A Serbian Film rams its unspeakable horror down your throat in the angriest possible way, like a howling, frenzied sermon on inhumanity and extreme depravity. The film is an assault that recalls the manner in which Gaspar Noé set out to fuck with audiences in Irreversible but, whereas Noé employed spinning camera trickery and unsettling sub-sonic sound frequencies to try and sicken the viewer, A Serbian Film just deploys more scenes of rape/torture/death. The official line taken by the creators of the film is that it is intended as a reaction to, and allegorical exploration of, living through the recent tumultuous history of Serbia. During a Q&A session following a screening at SXSW, director Srđan Spasojević explained -
“This is a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government. We’re giving this back to you.”
“It’s about the monolithic power of leaders who hypnotize you to do things you don’t want to do. You have to feel the violence to know what it’s about.”
The problem here is that A Serbian Film is far too busy bludgeoning you upside the head with scenes of raw, unmitigated mayhem to give you time to possibly reflect on any kind of political subtext or allegorical message. Of course, that’s probably where the none-too-subtle title comes into play. It’s true that there are sparse allusions in the film to war heroes and the Hague Tribunal, fleeting glimpses of a sinister back story and a nation struggling to come to terms with its own transgressions, but they are difficult to make much of, confined to the background of a film in which the foreground is a psycho-circus act of gruesome depravity. The filmmakers claim that it is a process of catharsis through strong and very subversive art and it’s necessarily fucking crazy because Serbs (and, presumably, wider audiences) have become so desensitized. As a means of communicating a tumultuous history and maltreatment by government authorities, however, it is hard to call the end result a success here. It is much akin to taking a nuanced political poem and choosing to perform it as a loud, discordant death metal song with unintelligible screaming and it is a stretch to imagine even many Serbs sitting in front of this film and concluding “hey, this reminds me of when my country descended into an ultra-nationalist frenzy”.
Curiously, for a movie with such extreme imagery and subject matter, A Serbian Film is rather well made. Once the dust, blood and cum settles, you can appreciate how well it was shot and performed. The filmmakers state that they take their inspiration mostly from the American cinema of the 1970s and that they have attempted to emulate the style of such greats as Sam Peckinpah and William Friedkin. They certainly achieved something of that with the timeless look of this movie. Unable to afford to shoot on film, they had to use the RED digital camera and forego any CGI, relying instead on good old fashioned prosthetics and fake blood. Truth be told, the ethereal nature of CGI would have softened some of the imagery here and, if nothing else, A Serbian Film is a testament to the nauseating power of old-school effects done properly. The main actor, Srđan Todorović, puts in a solid performance as Milosh, capturing his descent into his harrowing, frenzied state extremely well. In support, Sergej Trifunović keeps the demented evil of Vukmir from becoming too much of a cartoon performance. I was worried that he was going to be like the pathetic Dino Velvet character in 8MM (played by Peter Stormare) but Trifunović’s Vukmir eschews pantomime and remains absolutely vile, sick and dangerous throughout. As a debut feature for Srđan Spasojević, this is a bold, bold move that may yet prove to be the making or breaking of the man as a filmmaker. A Serbian Film is not the kind of experience you can take a few steps back from in order to properly examine, you need to flee across the hills in retreat from the damn thing and then peer back at it through binoculars. When you’ve done that, however, it’s impossible to deny that Spasojević is a skilled director that knows how to put a film together. A Serbian Film doesn’t look cheap and doesn’t play amateurish. It is raging mind-rape as cinema, to be sure, but it has been crafted with sincerity.
I’m something of a fan of transgressive art, I have to admit, but I do not go out of my way to collect or otherwise revel in it. In its own way, A Serbian Film impressed me by causing a genuine feeling of revulsion in my gut and making me seriously question why I was even watching it. It is powerful and challenging in much the same way that having to undergo a surgical procedure sans anaesthetic is powerful and challenging. That said, I’m not going to tell anyone to watch this film* for fear of being grossly misunderstood and damaging what meagre reputation I may have as a respectable member of my species, and I suspect the critics you can find denouncing this film are doing so for much the same reasons. It is quite unlike anything you’re likely to have seen before (unless you have some utterly fucked-up extra-curricular habits), particularly in terms of the scope and potency of the sexual violence. Controversial exploitation films and “video nasties” have featured sexual violence before, of course, but even in their longstanding notoriety they do not measure up to some of the scenes in A Serbian Film. This is one that you seek out and view at your own risk, should you wish to. Just don’t mention my name.
(*I have, in fact, informed a small handful of friends about A Serbian Film and have told them to check it out. I trust these individuals to be able to handle the content therein and to have a genuine interest in such an extreme film.)