Dir: Srdjan Spasojevic
You really can’t separate A Serbian Film from the hype that has surrounded it since it was first seen in January. Horror cinema has lately been going through another of those periodic patches in which it is becoming notably more extreme, with each release seeming to aim for a new high (or low, depending on your point of view) watermark in how testing an experience it can be for its audience, and it seems that for many people A Serbian Film is that latest high (or low) point – that said I’ve since heard that another Serbian film; The Life and Death of a Porno Gang, is even more extreme. Certainly this film has attracted more criticism for its violence than almost any in recent memory, with mere descriptions of scenes, especially the now infamous ‘newborn porn’ scene, serving for some as an indictment of how far the horror genre will stoop to excite its audience. It is perhaps this infamy, rather than the film’s content as such, which has resulted in the BBFC demanding 49 separate cuts – a total of four minutes and twelve seconds – to the version of the film I’m now reviewing.
This hype was one of two things I carried with me into the screening. The other was an awareness of director Srdjan Spasojevic’s repeated claims that his film, far from being a mere exercise in prurient violence, is in fact an allegorical tale about how Serbia has been mistreated by the political class. On the surface, at least, the film is about Milos (Srdjan Todorovic), a former porn star who is lured out of family life with a big payday to work for a director (Sergei Trifunovic) who says that he wants to make a hardcore art film, and tells Milos that he’s to know nothing more about the project. As the film becomes more and more depraved, with violent sex scenes, often performed with young children watching, Milos decides that he wants to leave, but when he tries he is drugged and forced to continue with ever more depraved scenes for the film.
Whatever A Serbian Film is, subtle it is not. Once you are made aware of the fact that the filmmakers claim that it is an allegory that fact is obvious in almost every scene, in fact it’s an incredibly simplistic message, casting Serbia as a rape victim and ‘porno artist’ Vukmir as the corrupt political class beating it and fucking it, if only from a distance. This is never more nakedly expressed than in the ‘newborn porn’ scene. Perhaps if I knew more about Serbian society and politics this would seem insightful and clever, but to be frank I just felt like someone was shouting an unconvincing argument at me. For all its heavy-handed attempts at bringing this message to bear on the film, I found it an empty experience. Even in this cut version it is relentlessly (often boringly) brutal, and I found little of the intelligence and weight that lifted films like Martyrs and Antichrist out of the torture porn ghetto.
I can’t deny that A Serbian Film is well made. The gore effects are brilliantly handled, with a decapitation towards the end of the film being especially nasty and convincing, and Srdjan Spasojevic definitely shows promise as a director, as the level of craft that he’s put into the design of his shots here (especially during the shooting of Vukmir’s film) is diverting. This is when it’s a real shame that the film is so heavily cut, because there is obviously real thought behind the film’s visuals and its editing (it’s notable that there is actually relatively little really explicit gore here, much of the worst violence is cleverly shot to hide some of the detail without losing the impact). There is also an almost surreal quality to the film within the film, and that sense of Milos’ entering another world when he steps on to set is heightened by the stark and stylised lighting choices and the strange, structure free, dialogue of the porn film. The acting is also largely impressive (though Sergej Trifunovic does push the boat out too far towards the end, becoming a cartoonish embodiment of the already bludgeoned in message), but whatever the level of craft there was just something missing here for me.
A Serbian Film wants to shock you. It probably will, but personally I need to be really involved in a film to be affected by it in that way, and I just wasn’t with this one. The message was so front and centre that it really got in the way, for me, of engaging with the characters on a purely human level, to me everything in this film ends up feeling like a piece of Spasojevic’s personal allegorical jigsaw. There also came a point at which the film was pushing the boat out so ridiculously far in its violence and transgression that I began guessing at the most fucked up thing they could do next, and ended up guessing much of the content of the last quarter of an hour. The one moment I didn’t see coming, by the way, is so utterly ridiculous that it too undermined any shock value of the scene.
As unconvinced and as disappointed as I am by A Serbian Film as a whole, there is enough going on here to interest me in Srdjan Spasojevic’s next film, providing that he elects to tell a story rather than provide a blood drenched and unconvincing lecture. There is, of course, the possibility that restoring the missing four minutes and twelve seconds will transform the film into the masterpiece that some have claimed it to be, but somehow I doubt it.