After watching a particularly nasty film, it feels appropriate that this post is going to be a meditation on the extremes of sadistic violence and sex in fiction and as such is actually a sequel to an early post I wrote dealing with the nature of violence in fiction. This post will also be a review as I go through what I liked and didn’t like about the film in question. The film I’m talking about and that I recently had the displeasure of experiencing is called A Serbian Film. Right off the bat, I can’t suggest this film to anyone. Maybe if you’re an experienced gore hound then fine but for the rest of you, you can spend the better part of two hours doing something better than watching this film. Even watching fruit rot would be a better investment to be honest if you are not prepared for this movie. Now, I’m willing to bet for those of you who haven’t heard of this movie or who have heard of its infamy, with your curiosity piqued it will sound like a good idea in the moment to go and watch it. But in the moment and in the spirit of seeing how far you can push yourself, you might also think that guzzling two liters of soda or eating too many hot peppers (trust me on that second one) is a good idea. From my experience in such things, you will feel like you can handle it as you are going through it but afterwards, your stomach begins to reject it. In the same way, our minds cope with what has been given in the moment then afterwards we are left feeling sick. I consider myself pretty battle hardened when it comes to the most shocking cinema has to offer. I’ve seen Pierre Paolo-Pasolini’s 120 Giornate di Sodoma as well as Antichrist by Lars von Trier just to name two of the most infamous movies produced that I’ve seen. This is just by way of demonstrating that I’m no stranger to the controversial and the grotesque. And yet I feel as though this film in particular has transgressed in a certain way and opened a door that is better off left alone. There will be more on what I mean by that later but first I want to dive into this snake pit.
The film revolves around Milos, a retired porn actor. He has a wife, Marija (played by Jelena Gavrilovic) and son, Petar (played by Luka Mijatović). Low on cash, his friend from the business, Lejla (played by Katarina Žutić) tells him about a job in an art film by a man named Vukmir (played by Sergej Trifunovic). As it turns out, Vukmir is one twisted fellow and his idea of an artistic pornography film is essentially sadistic torture/rape/everything else you could think of. From there, we as the audience get to witness a fever dream of debauchery and depravity. There are some subplots like Milos’ brother’s obsession with his wife and this does come into play later but it’s not the main focus. But before I even get to my gripes, I want to discuss the more neutral aspects of the film.
First off, let’s get the easy stuff out of the way. Here are some observations on the technical end of the film. I have to give credit where credit is due. The film looks good. The director, Srdjan Spasojevic, knows how to compose a shot and develop an atmosphere of bleakness. For all the lurid and graphic sex in the film, it has a surprisingly sterile atmosphere, as if we’re gazing into an ongoing apocalypse. Cinematography is pretty standard with not too much there to grab your attention which fits with the feeling of the rest of the film. Ugly, blocky utilitarian. The music, surprisingly, is solidd, with droning industrial sounds and off-kilter warbling synths that feel like they’ve been jacked full of speed and are full of nothing but bad intentions. Sound design is good as well. Violence is given a very brutal, sickening sound signature. The voices are easy to hear and ambient sounds in some scenes lend a real sense of place. In terms of special effects, it’s actually pretty hit and miss. The gore effects are mediocre to good. I’ve seen more convincing stuff but overall it does the job of eliciting squick. The prosthetic work and animatronics are laughable though I’m sure the animatronic in question is going to bring out disgust/rage/shock just for being put to film any ways. Overall, the production quality is quite good which leaves the big question of the acting.
The acting is tough to review because it feels like the actors are in two different movies. One of which could have been good and I would have liked to have seen. In the part of the movie that would have been good, there is Srdjan Todorovic playing Milos, a retired porn star who is trying to have a normal life with a family. Todorovic really sells the idea of a man who is caught between a rock and a hard place. He has no job but the only job he knew, the only world he knew, was the seedy world of pornography. How does he square that with being a family man? His character is aware of the hopelessness of the situation and wants to get out of Serbia but is trapped by financial circumstances. I can sympathize with the guy somewhat as a man with a past he is stuck with. Gavrilovic turns in some good acting as well, especially towards the end. Her muted expressions are affecting and effective in a movie that has done so much to dehumanize and numb the audience. I really give her credit. Which is part of what is so maddening. There is a pretty good movie in here somewhere. But the film needed and possibly deserved a better, more subtle, and more mature writer-director. As I said, there is a decent film hiding in here but you will be hard pressed to find it amidst the perversion. Don’t think that this absolves the film because it absolutely does not and you shouldn’t sit through the rest of this just for a few minutes of good acting. So that is the “good” insofar as the word can be applied to this film. Now it’s time to deal with the bad half of the acting. And everything else.
The character of Milos undergoes a drastic change that consumes the majority of the second half of the film. After being pumped full of livestock aphrodisiac, he is more animal than man. Sure he sells it, which is something of a feat, but as he sells it more and more, there is less and less to relate to. The other big character is Vukmir. Trifunovic’s chewing of the scenery is almost as brutal as the overt violence. Plus, he got saddled with all of the most pretentious lines and was left with being the mouthpiece of the director. Which raises some interesting questions about the nature of the film (Vukmir=Spasojevic?) and us for watching it. But overall, the character is reprehensible and unrelateable as the mad creator. He is just there to allow the director to inject the film with the themes he wants to be more apparent. The supporting cast is broadly a collection of victims we see on screen long enough for them to be used as fodder and then tossed, or conversely, for them to do some sadistic or violent act then get tossed. Anyone else here seeing a pattern? And speaking of patterns, it’s time to talk about theme and how not to do it.
The major theme of this movie is how the Serbian people are doomed. Pretty much all the time. Doom. From the moment they are born, the film asserts, they are manipulated and taken advantage of. This is represented by a scene- To be honest, if you want to know, go to the wikipedia page. (Read that then decide if you want to watch this.) You’ll know the “metaphor” used to express this view when you see it. This is how to do theme badly and this is one of my major gripes with the film. Supposedly, the director wants to shock us into feeling how the Serbian people feel. But honestly, this sounds like a flimsy excuse to justify the ugliness of the movie. Schindler’s List broke everyone’s heart and made us feel the helplessness and horror that these people experienced and it did it without resorting to what this film shows. Essentially, this movie lacks any kind of self awareness. It promotes itself as high-art and daring and fearless but at its core, it’s a film made to shock and disgust and really nothing more. In fact, I’m going to give the movie the benefit of the doubt and say there is a message here and it is a good one about exploitation of the weak by the powerful, and the voyeuristic nature of the audience watching horror films, and so on and so forth. That’s all well and good but the cruelty of the images utterly masks and distracts from what is going on. You don’t need a five minute rape/murder scene or some other repulsive imagery to get these points across. And if you are making a horror movie that is graphic there are better ways to tie your theme to your content. Just look at Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, or Cronenberg’s Videodrome, or on the more extreme side, Craven’s Last House on the Left. These films are horrifying and they horrify certainly but they don’t push so hard as to absolutely turn off the audience. They at least give us a point of connection whereas this movie leaves us with none. And no amount of theme is going to save your movie when the audience is left sitting in a vacuum.
And this ends the review portion. Still with me? If you are, then this is what I take away from this movie and movies like it.
In the end, I can’t say it was even so much the overt brutality of the movie that got to me. This stuff happens in the real world and happens to real human beings. Look at the Nanking Massacre or what Unit 731 did or the Rwandan genocide or the Nazi death camps or the atomic bombs being dropped or 9/11 or the wars that keep claiming more and more lives over-seas. If you want to be offended and disgusted, then be offended at the real atrocities committed against real human beings. Mourn for them and our capacity to do such things. This is just a trashy movie with pretensions of being art. So it wasn’t the gore or what was depicted though I’d be lying to say that there were parts that that didn’t genuinely churn my stomach. Instead what struck me was more subtle. It was the feeling as I said of being in a vacuum. What offended me was the nihilism of the film and the assertion of the film that it’s simply trying to represent life. Two things come to mind now: the news and Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (which I have not seen and feel no need to see). Both claim to represent life but both only represent the ugliest aspects of it. All this movie did was take things to their logical extremes. In a way, I feel I must commend the movie for exposing and embodying the kind of delusion we live under that the world is this crapsack existence. Furthermore, according to this film, there is no way out. Not even death saves you from desecration. I have a real problem with the fact a movie would, not suggest this (other films have), but would be a monument to nihilism. I get a real sense of emptiness from this movie. Though the director claims that there is a point to the movie, that there is a message, I don’t believe that for a second. The film genuinely seems to exist for no other reason than to be hideous and showcase this hideousness. The film obsesses over and fetishizes its nastiness to the point where I don’t know if the film is supposed to be denouncing or championing the things its showing. So why watch it?
I love horror movies and always like to see how much scary I can take before I have to shut my eyes. I watched this movie because I heard it was scary and disturbing and was morbidly curious. It’s like with my love of spicy food. I wanted to eat the hottest. However, to be honest, I’m more content with the mildly spicy and hot at this point rather than the dangerously spicy and I feel like this movie may be the thing that breaks my fondness or curiosity for the extremest horror or at least the new extreme horror of this generation. I can’t help but think of what Andre from My Dinner with Andre said about what it takes to break people out of their numbness and get to them. Now, My Dinner with Andre was a movie made back in 1981 but it’s still incredibly relevant and this remark is right on the nose. Andre says, “I mean it may very well be that 10 years from now people will pay $10,000 in cash to be castrated just in order to be affected by something.” I feel like we have reached that point somewhat where things have had to become meaner and sharper because we’re completely numb to life and the world around us. How else can one explain the interest in torture porn films and other forms of the extreme found in the media? These films offer the next best thing to castrating yourself which is vicarious castration/mutilation. But this is like opium in my opinion. It doesn’t last because the psychic wounds these films leave heal and scar so that the next time, we need something even sharper and meaner to get through to us. Just turning on the news requires we develop a thicker skin as I was saying. According to the news, the world we live in is terrible, absolutely terrible. Children never laugh, people never fall in love, no one ever does something out of altruism or because it was the right thing to do. Instead, all we hear is how awful everything is all the time. So if you listen to the news, you’re already going to need a strong tincture of brutality to get through to you. So does this mean I’m going to boycott horror movies and action movies or that I suggest others do so?
In short: hell no! Like with the hot food, I didn’t stop using red pepper or habanero peppers when I can get them. I simply toned it down from the extremes. I know I am looking forward to the Evil Dead remake and if you can’t tell from the continuing coverage, I am totally hyped for Pacific Rim. But these are movies that know what they are and aren’t trying to shock us into catatonia. They are fun house movies where something pops out and goes “BOO!” and you scream and laugh at how you could fall for such things. Or more specific to the Evil Dead movie, the gore is there to squick you out by being over the top but in a more cartoony way. We know demons are never going to come popping out of the Necronomicon so there is a remove from reality. In short, neither of these movies are trying to convince us of the nature of reality or life. They are there just to get your heart rate up and give you a sense of catharsis. Plus, I don’t get the feeling that the director or writers are trying to hurt the audience. Something I can’t say for the movie that got this ball rolling. There is no catharsis with A Serbian Film. There is no letting up and it begins as it ends, in darkness.