It’s been a few months since I watched A Serbian Film, and while I was rather apprehensive about writing about it at all, after its recent theatrical release in the US, I thought I may as well throw my own thoughts on the pile.
Also, since watching it I’ve found myself thinking about it more often than I like. If I say only one thing about it, it’s that it made an impression on me. Over the same weekend I also watched Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, which people often use as a benchmark of hard to watch cinema. Funny Games for me was a slap on the wrist compared to the brutal assault that was A Serbian Film. Is this a good thing? I’m not sure I could tell you, but I’ll do my best to try. I had the opportunity to see an uncut version of the film, which has been refused classification within Australia. According to Wikipedia, as of April 5th 2011, a censored version of the film has been approved, however I’m not sure if it’ll have much of a release.
A Serbian Film tells the story of Miloš, a semi retired porn star who decided to bow out of the business on a high, rather than fade away. He has a loving wife and son, but dreams of providing a better life for them all. When an opportunity for a big paycheck presents itself in the form of one last job – an “art film” being directed by independently wealthy director Vukmir – Miloš reluctantly agrees. He’s told nothing about the production, and even on the first day of shooting is fed direction through an earpiece while silent camera men watch on. At this point A Serbian Film plays like David Lynch does Bowfinger. It’s confusing, but there’s a palpable tension. Miloš and the audience are both kept in the dark.
The art film’s scenes turn from bizarre to sexual, and Miloš becomes apprehensive when things begin to turn violent. He expresses his concerns to Vukmir, threatening to pull out if he’s not let in on the story. By way of explanation, Vukmir shows Miloš a previously shot scene which I won’t describe here, but will probably become one of the most talked about scenes amongst viewers, and isn’t likely to be part of the version approved for this country. Miloš leaves, but his fate has already been sealed. His drink has been spiked. He begins to hallucinate, and finally wakes up in his house three days later, bloodied and bruised, with his family nowhere to be found. After retracing his steps, Miloš comes across a camera and set of digital tapes. Miloš – and the audience – are forced to re-live his drug induced actions over the previous three days.
To call A Serbian Film a horror film is to almost do it an injustice; it has very little in common with anything you’ll find in the horror section of your local video store. Even torture porn junkies and fans of films like the Hostel and Saw series are likely to wince. This is not horror for the sake of titillation, and there’s very little to gain enjoyment from. The gore effects aren’t necessarily frequent, but when they do appear they’re graphic and incredibly realistic. It’s not the gore that makes A Serbian Film hard to watch though, rather the violence and its sexual nature. Miloš is both the victim and perpetrator, and distancing yourself emotionally from his character becomes harder and harder as the film progresses. Just as things look like they can’t get worse, they do, then again, and again.
A Serbian Film’s greatest strength is likely to be what upsets most audiences. Horror as most people know it involves very little attachment to its characters. Stereotypical teens are painted in very broad strokes across the screen, with their sole purpose being to die in a painful and hopefully imaginative and entertaining fashion. Their deaths played out for the audience’s entertainment and amusement. There is no joy to be found in A Serbian Film. Our protagonist is an ordinary every-man who falls into an extraordinary situation. His motivations are only to provide a better life for his family, and yet the world he is drawn into is worse than he or anyone could ever imagine. Where we can laugh at the teen-slasher victim as they wander up the stairs to inevitable death as opposed to walking out the front door, there is no out for Miloš or escaping what he has done. It’s a slow, horrible, painful downward spiral, and the audience is brought along every step of the way. It’s not just dark, it’s bleak. Even in its climax there is no reprieve. No sign of hope or redemption for anyone.
There is some talk that buried within A Serbian Film is a political message, however the cynic in me doubts there’s much cross over in the venn diagram of people concerned about the plight of Serbians and people who will be drawn to watch “A Serbian Film”. While I’d be hard pushed to say I recommend it to anyone I know, I can’t say it’s a film that no one should see. As an experience it can’t be faulted, and if you think you’re prepared, it’s definitely worth tracking down.
Although I probably would avoid it as a date movie.