Usually when a movie is as well made as A Serbian Film while also being as over the top as A Serbian Film there’s a sense of juvenile envelope pushing - like the filmmakers are simply giggling at the idea of showing something more extreme than what has been shown before. Transgression is serious business when done right, and while I didn’t find A Serbian Film to be completely effective, I’m happy to report that director Srdjan Spasojevic is doing his transgression right. A Serbian Film is about stuff, not just about being the movie that gorehounds use to test themselves (although it’s certainly become that). Unfortunately the deeper issues might fly right over the heads of Westerners, rendering A Serbian Film nothing more than a softcore gore porn.
Milos is a retired Serbian porn star; he now has a beautiful wife and a lovely young son, and is quite happy. But money is running out, and maybe he misses the old days just a little bit, so when a mysterious filmmaker approaches him to get back in the game for one last large-paying gig, Milos takes the job. The set up is odd from the start; the filmmaker tells Milos that he’s making a reality-based art film, and that rather than have a script or a premise Milos must simply walk into scenes and react to what’s going on. The camera men are bruisers, looking more like secret police interrogators than cinematographers. And the scenes are weird, and they keep getting weirder. Children are involved. S&M is involved. And then things go really over the top. And then there’s women getting their heads cut off while being fucked and children being anally raped and cockicide and, in the film’s signature moment, a newborn baby being fucked by a hulking beast of a man.
The first half of A Serbian Film is fairly straightforward exposition; the sexy stuff, such as it is, really occurs right up front. Then in the last act as things get out of control and as the sex gets horrifying Spasojevic decides to show us what happens in a series of flashbacks. Milos is drugged with cattle aphrodisiac and wakes up, covered in blood, days later. As he retraces his steps he finds corpses and semen and video tapes of just what went down.
The plot of the porn film Milos is making involves the daughter of a dead war hero; the Bosnian War and the Serbian genocide hang heavy over the film. Part of what’s happening here is about Serbia dealing with a national guilt hangover; the ugly things in the film are reflections of events in the mid-to-late 90s. But there’s also something reactionary in A Serbian Film. Milos is just as much of a victim as the woman who is suffocated by a dick, and part of the point of the porn being made is to allow overseas viewers to wallow in the misery. There’s a guilt hangover, but there’s also a feeling of resentment that Serbia was put through such shit - by corrupt and evil leaders - in such a public view. Milos ends up technically complicit in some truly horrifying crimes, but he’s being controlled by others. Whatever the reason for his actions, they’re all caught on tape, just like the genocide of Muslims.
Again, I think a lot of the historical and cultural context will fly over the heads of viewers; A Serbian Film certainly sent me packing to Wikipedia to fill in my gaps in recent history. Smarter, more tuned in viewers will pick some things up, but I do wonder what reactions Serbs have to the political subtext of the movie. Still, I think that Spasojevic has filled A Serbian Film with enough weight that even the most clueless viewer will understand that there are issues under discussion here. This isn’t just Amateur Porn Star Killer, trying to get a reaction out of viewers. Spasojevic has something to say.
There’s something I keep coming back to with the film, and I don’t know how much of this is intentional. Some minor spoilers ahead. The already infamous newborn porn scene intrigued me not because of what I was seeing - the filmed image couldn’t match up with what I had built up in my head - but in the fact that the scene is only shown in A Serbian Film as a movie clip. Milos is forced to watch the sequence while being slipped a mickey. What got me really interested was the idea that there was no newborn porn - that what Milos was seeing was trickery. God knows it was filmed ‘demurely’ enough - there’s no visible penetration. As the third act kicked in, with Milos discovering the events of the past few days only through video playback, I began to wonder if the reality of all of this was in question, if A Serbian Film wasn’t commenting on the line between our desire to see horrors and our ability to inflict them, but that ends up not being the case. The film feels somewhat smaller as a result, and I couldn’t help but wonder what David Cronenberg would do with material like this. Videodrome was heavily on my mind when A Serbian Film ended.
A Serbian Film isn’t for most people; it will only appeal to those most willing to wade into the darkest, ugliest corners of the world. But the truth is that there’s nothing in the film you couldn’t seen for real after an a few hours on 4chan. I think that film as shock tactic has been overshadowed by internet clips; for a film to truly shock it has to first get under the audience’s skin. A Serbian Film never quite does that; Milos’ home life and family didn’t grab me, and actor Srdjan Todorovic has a greasy sort of weasel aspect that kept me from truly empathizing with him. Milos looks less like a retired porn star and more like a porn star who needs to dry out. But Spasovejic gets points for trying; he understands that if he doesn’t build some characters we won’t care about the pain inflicted upon them. Again, A Serbian Film isn’t always effective, but it always tries.
More than just a cheap bit of nastiness but not quite successful at being a truly disturbing bit of filmmaking, A Serbian Film is stuck in an interesting middle ground. It’s a movie worth checking out (for those who can stomach it), but not necessarily a movie worth getting crazy over.