A Serbian Film
Somewhere in the late ’80s, there was a one-page vignette in the great Love and Rockets comic about a bar fight between two women — actually more like a one-sided beatdown. The ass-whupping is over almost as soon as it starts, and nobody else in the bar knows why it happened. The narrator of the vignette concludes, “We all sat around trying to top each other with our reactions.” Well, A Serbian Film is a bar fight, and a lot of critics have been trying to top each other with their reactions. I’ve heard it all — “The most disturbing film ever!” “I’ll never watch it again!” “I wish I hadn’t seen it!” “Please don’t see this, because you can’t unsee it!” And so on and so forth. A few of these critics were also kind enough to give away each and every outrage in the film (something I won’t do here). So by the time I saw A Serbian Film — the monolith of evil! the horned terror of international cinema! — I was working at a jaded disadvantage: I kept waiting to be shocked and appalled.
The movie is certainly well-made, effectively acted; all the technical ducks are in a row here. It’s not some grubby, grainy nightmare like the August Underground films, whose conceit is that they were filmed (badly) by psychopaths. (Nor is it as genuinely brain-fried, or as grungily haunting, as Roger Watkins’ Last House on Dead End Street, made for about fifty cents 37 years ago.) I’m not here to bash A Serbian Film; I’m just here to counteract some of the hype and hullabaloo, which dilute whatever impact the movie might have on virgin eyes. I’m willing, for the sake of argument, to go along with what director Srdjan Spasojevic and his co-writer Aleksandar Radivojevic say about the movie: that it’s a blast of hot contempt at the Serbian government. But what goes on in the narrative bears only the most tenuous political relevance, even metaphorically — it could be set anywhere, except that its Eastern European milieu, as with the Hostel films, might seduce American viewers into a xenophobic response along the lines of “Yeah, those Transylvanians or whatever the hell they are, they’re totally sick fucks.” (This attitude was buttressed recently by the notorious video of a Bosnian girl throwing puppies into a river, not to mention the Dnepropetrovsk Maniacs.¹)
All you should know going in: Miloš (Srdjan Todorovic) is a former porn actor who gets drawn into a hush-hush porn project by Vukmir (Sergei Trifunovic), a bearded Mephistopheles who talks about extreme art and waves a big paycheck in Miloš’ face. (We never find out how much Vukmir is offering, but we assume it’s some formidable digits.) Since we spend most of our time with these two, it’s good that Todorovic and Trifunovic are compelling actors who, I hope, haven’t nuked their careers. (Well, Todorovic has been acting since 1986 and making music since 1981, and Trifunovic has been in recent American films like Next and War Inc., so maybe I shouldn’t worry.) The smiling, diabolical Vukmir reminded me of Brazil’s Coffin Joe, and Miloš is an appealingly schlubby protagonist with a warm family life — if anyone in America is nuts enough to remake this, Sam Rockwell would be the perfect “Milo.”
A Serbian Film is — no two ways about it — a provocation. It’s an extreme film for people who haven’t seen very many extreme films; like Man Bites Dog (a far sharper film) or The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (a film whose excesses seemed more plausibly tied to a political point of view), it will do its dirtiest work among the unprepared at film festivals or art houses. Gorehounds who go into it with an “Étonne-moi!” attitude will perhaps be able to scratch off a few things on their Haven’t Seen That In A Movie Before checklist, but that’s about it. Ultimately, A Serbian Film is too movie-ish, too contrived, to deal any lasting psychic damage. It comes on like 8mm or Hardcore dialed up to 11, but the very dialing-up feels like a stunt, like a bunch of guys sitting around coming up with lots of ways to fuck with a man’s head.
For all that, as I said, it’s solidly crafted, shot in handsome widescreen by Nemanja Jovanov. Its feral reputation may precede it, but it clearly hasn’t been made by trolls with cameras — there’s a fair amount of artfulness here. I wasn’t bored. I wasn’t shaken to the core, either. Some taboos are shattered, but the movie is (understandably) so staunchly against the horrors it depicts that it just seems like a gallery of shock that doesn’t really hit us directly. (For it to be truly disturbing, it would have to have the power to lull us into complicity with the ghastly acts. Very, very few films can pull that off.) The problem with going over the top is that you cross a line between relatable horror and freak show. So the reaction you get isn’t horror so much as “Dude, this is pretty fucked up right here.” Well, we’ve got Jackass and Freddy Got Fingered for that.
¹ Sorry to say, but once you’ve watched the Dnepropetrovsk video — relax, that link goes to someone’s editorial about it, not to the video itself — purely fictional assaults like A Serbian Film seem very, very quaint. Also, look up the Rape of Nanking sometime, and the film based on it, Men Behind the Sun, which even in its rabid explicitude doesn’t even scratch the surface of the obscenities perpetrated by Japanese soldiers on the Chinese during those terrible six weeks. The point is, man’s real-life inhumanity to man (and woman) is often grotesque enough without inventing stuff like some of the cartoonish violence that takes place in A Serbian Film. By cartoonish, I specifically mean stuff like Miloš’ final revenge on a guard with an eyepatch. Wild and crazy, yes, but it takes the movie out of the realm of the distressingly real and into the surrealistically comforting midnight-cult-movie realm of something like Meet the Feebles.