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Old 6th Feb 2012, 13:32   #1
amner
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Default A Serbian Film

Includes Spoilers

I've been looking at the blank screen all morning trying to think of a way into this review. A Serbian Film wants that. It wants you speechless and aghast. Aghast is what it is all about.

I became aware of the movie as an attendee at the Film Four FrightFest in London in August 2010 when one of the organisers of the festival climbed onstage to announce that the film had been pulled following the intervention of Westminster Council. Often, movies at FrightFest will be shown pre-certificate, but here Westminster Council refused to allow it, stating that they wanted it classified by the BBFC first.

It was quite a dramatic announcement, and the atmosphere in the auditorium was one of considerable disquiet and righteous indignation. Knowing little at the time I was non-plussed, but later I wondered if the right decision hadn't been stumbled upon. Despite being a staunch believer in minimum censure - thinking that films will gravitate to the level and audience they deserve - a closer examination of what A Serbian Film had to offer gave me pause.

At its DVD submission to the BBFC, almost 50 cuts, well over 4 minutes of material, were excised before the 18 cert was issued. It is a significant amount to lose. Some of what's missing is implied below. You may want to miss the next bit.

In the cut I was watching, the director, Srđan Spasojević appears after the distribution company's logo and explains a little about the movie and the roar of controversy that has echoed all around it since its troubled release. This is not an extra accessed via the bonus menus, but an actual pre-title sequence. Mostly, he speaks well and eruditely about the film and its many difficulties. He talks about the emotional and artistic raping of Serbia and its people, and peppers his introduction with some not entirely serious asides about how serious this endeavour of his is. It is a little off-key and suspicious. He is trying to get you on side. There is a hint of self-justification surrounding it.

The film begins. We are in a cheap porn movie, and our hero Miloš (Srđan Todorović) is having sex with a girl bent over a motorbike. The film is from Miloš's glorious past as the legendary porn actor of his generation, now down on his luck and drinking too much, trying to live a straight but dull life with his wife Marija and 6 yr old son, Petar. Miloš is feeling the pressure and is soon being persuaded by one of his old colleagues, Lejla, to get back into the business. He resists, but Lejla insists he can have one last major payday by doing a single shoot with Vukmir, a new 'artistic' director, who wants to turn porn into a viable form. When Miloš meets Vukmir, the crazed auteur - all wide eyes, grand gestures and devilish beard - offers him a life-changing amount of money and the deal is signed.

Vukmir's take, at least, what he tells Miloš, is that the scenes of his film will remain a mystery to Miloš; he just has to turn up and go with it. Understandably, he is wary but his wife tells him to think of the cash. This is a bad idea.

In the first scene, he follows a woman into an orphanage where he is introduced to a young girl. The girl's age is indeterminate, but it worries Miloš. Before anything happens she is dragged away by a blonde woman, who turns out to be her mother. The mother is in turn restrained by security men. She is the widow of a deceased army hero, but has brought disgrace upon herself by becoming a prostitute. She is beaten and then ordered to fellate Miloš; while this is happening Miloš realises the young girl is watching. He sees that she is indeed very young and tries to stop, but security personnel restrain him and force him to continue.

Miloš speaks to Vukmir and tries to break his contract. Vukmir says that he merely needs to understand the 'truth' that is being sought. There is a political discussion. We seem to be veering into the same areas that the real director was touching on at the pre-credit introduction. To illustrate his vision Vukmir show Miloš the scene that was most heavily excised from the movie by the BBFC; a man attends at the birth of a baby and as the baby is given its first slap and screams to be welcomed into the world, he rapes it. This is not seen, and visually it makes little sense [sic] but Vukmir explains it, and Miloš's reaction suggests all you could possibly need to know.


This is the key scene, maybe not plot-wise, but in the development of A Serbian Film as an entity. I'll come back to it in a moment.

After Miloš storms out things get rather less linear and after waking up three days later to find Marija and Peter gone, Miloš realises that he has been drugged and there are great glaring holes in his memory. Unfortunately, and I really do mean unfortunately, he is able to induce flashbacks via convenient visual clues and heads out on a journey to discover what has been happening since he absented himself from the contract.

Firstly, he finds that the war hero widow becomes his next big scene. Tied to a bed, he is made to rape her after being injected with 'cattle viagra'. At the height of his passion a very large machete is shoved into his hand and he cuts her head off. Second, he is himself raped by the brutal security guards. After this, we see a masked man - who turns out to be Miloš's brother - orally raping his old colleague Lejla, who suffocates during the expeience. Finally, Miloš enters a warehouse where he and the masked man, who is revealed mid-act by the hysterical Vukmir, are enticed into forcing themselves onto two covered figures on a large bed. In the middle of this chaos, as the men suffer a moment of clarity during the act, the identities of the two figures are revealed. It is, of course, Marija and Petar.

Miloš, as you might expect, goes ape-shit and launches himself at the film crew, at Vukmir and at his security guards. Incredibly, he grabs a gun (he is naked and tumescent all the while) and kills everyone, savouring the final death by shoving his erection into a guard's eye socket and delivering a most unorthodox lobotomy.

There is an unpleasant coda to tie it all off, culminating in Miloš's suicide with his traumatised wife and child, after which their corpses are violated.


I know, I know.

So, there are several things that it is vital to explore at this point. To begin with, whatever may be seen on screen - and for long pauses there is very little, certainly in the first third, other than Miloš looking moody or drunk or both - Srđan Spasojević knows how to point a camera. A Serbian Film, whatever else you might wish to say about it, is well shot. Indeed, it's more than competent, it's almost crafted. Second, despite feeling a little bullied into it by the self-regarding introduction, I would have to agree that yes, OK then, there is something going on beyond the grimness. There is a brutal metaphor being dragged out here and it is horrifically consistent. I'm sorry, but it is; people will do anything to survive certain situations, others will judge them afterward, people do lose their humanity when given too much power. I am afraid that Spasojević has a point.

However, the scene mentioned above, while underlining this, also highlights the movie's fatal flaw.

As horrific as that scene is, and it may just be the most gruesome thing yet submitted to celluloid, its exclusion doesn't derail what the film wants to 'say'. No, I agree, that at the precise moment of the cut it doesn't make a massive amount of sense, but only for as long as it takes - a few seconds really - for the two people viewing it to respond. As soon as that happens, one with a reaction shot the other with an explanation, the essence of the scene is conveyed. And that's the point. We haven't seen it, but it has been conveyed. With a little more give and take it could have been even clearer with no need for a few brief jarring seconds of confusion. As it is, A Serbian Film is so busy beating us into submission, it never stops to ask if it should stop and get us to fill in our own gaps. The political posturing is hopeless if all you end up doing is washing away the agenda in a welter of blood and viscera. Long before the credits roll, any goodwill you've brought with you has evaporated. A Serbian Film is like one of those school bullies with a bit of brain but no smarts, the kind who never worked out when to stop and walk away, but just kept punching and punching and punching.

I didn't care if there was anything behind it in the end, I just wanted it to go away.

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Old 6th Feb 2012, 21:17   #2
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Old 6th Feb 2012, 21:23   #3
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After reading this I was very glad I watched Lassie Come Home this afternoon.
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Old 7th Feb 2012, 9:27   #4
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Default Re: A Serbian Film

Thanks for the write-up, amner. This is a movie I've toyed with for months, especially after reading a long interview with Spasojevic where he does come across as someone who knows what he's doing (the same book had an interview with Tom Six, who unsurprisingly comes across as a complete prat). I'm still not sure if this review makes me more or less convinced that I probably should see this, but it certainly makes me even more certain that I don't want to see it...
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Old 7th Feb 2012, 17:17   #5
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Default Re: A Serbian Film

I'm unclear -- Amner, did you see the uncut version?

I suppose it doesn't really matter, though, at least as far as judging the film on its general qualities go. I guess. Eesh. Someone could hand me this DVD right now and I wouldn't know what to do with it. "Watch it eventually, despite myself" is probably the honest answer, however.
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Old 7th Feb 2012, 23:33   #6
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Sorry, bill, it was the uncut version, but as you say, ultimately it makes little difference.
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Old 12th Mar 2012, 16:24   #7
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It's rather amazing how quickly A Serbian Film has left my brain. That's not to imply I've forgotten it; I watched it just a couple of hours ago. But already, I don't care anymore. The shock impact director Srđan Spasojević has no doubt banked on -- and banked on effectively, as far it goes, given the movie's far fringe infamy -- to carry A Serbian Film through as some sort of career-starter, has been awfully quick to drain away.

I can think of a few different reasons for this, but right at the top of the list is that once you know what's in the film, you know what the film is. It's become something of what I guess you'd call a meme to say you've read A Serbian Film's quite thorough Wikipedia plot synopsis, and then announce that under no circumstances will you ever actually watch the film. I said this myself not terribly long ago, and figured the film's sketchy availability, at least in my neck of the woods, where getting my hands on it would, I thought, have involved something to do with home delivery, would make it a pretty easy promise to keep. So but then I was in the local video store today where I buy almost all of my DVDs, and I was absent-mindedly scanning the horror section -- which I do in the same way people in the supermarket linger in the bread aisle before deciding they already have plenty of bread -- and there it was. Just sitting there, with a big "UNCUT" sticker right on the front. For $8. I ended up buying it out of disbelief more than anything else.

So I bought it, and I watched it, and I decided that Wikipedia had summed it up rather nicely. There's nothing in that synopsis that isn't in the film (mostly, anyway; my copy is actually shaved down by one minute from the edit of A Serbian Film that blew up film festivals a few years ago, but I promise you the gist was clear), and there is nothing in the film that expands on the synopsis, this latter point being the key. The shock effects that A Serbian Film so feverishly pleads for are in the idea of the shocks rather than the shocks themselves. This is maybe easy enough for me to say when I've possibly been robbed of up to a full minute of child and infant torture, but when I think -- and I have no choice but to do so -- of the description of the film's most notorious scene, the one that enabled Spasojević to coin the term "newborn porn," a phrase that has gone on to do his marketing for him, and then think of what I saw on the DVD, I'm left to wonder what might have been removed that would still make the DVD legal for me to own, which I assume it is. Not much, I should think.

And either way, so what? Would a half second more of trauma have rendered A Serbian Film meaningful in some way? Because by the way, it's not a film that means anything. The narrative, such as it is, hinges entirely on extreme excess, and can be summarized quickly: Milos(Srđan Todorović) , a legendary ex-porn star who is now married and has a son, is approached by one of his former costars (Katarina Žutić) with an offer to appear in a bit of art porn being put together by the mysterious Vukmir Vukmir (Humbert Humbert? If so, Spasojević, then how dare you?). Vukmir is willing to pay through the nose for Milos's services, the only sketchy part, from Milos's point of view, being that he will not have any idea from one day to the next what the filming will involve. Vukmir wants Milos's reactions to the sexual situations to be pure. And are they ever!

At this point, cue the shock. Vukmir is once referred to by Milos's wife as sounding like he's one of their countrymen on trial at the Hague. This line is the equivalent ofThe Last House on the Left ending with somebody saying "Plus, Vietnam," which Wes Craven has sort of been doing ever since, or Eli Roth closing out Hostel Part II with a card that said "Hey, guys? Iraq." Which, okay, ibid. In other words, it's phony horseshit. Because I don't think it's any kind of accident that Spasojević has not followed up A Serbian Film with a scathing political indictment of modern day Serbia, but rather a section of the upcoming horror anthology The ABCs of Death. Not that I have anything against horror -- I quite like it, most times. I think what I'm saying is that horror directors are assholes. I don't know, that can't be it.

Plus, whatever you might want to say about Wes Craven -- and I want to say very little that is good -- it's unavoidably true that The Last House on the Left, a film I have no love for, has about it a certain cheap power, a low budget coating of filth that can make it feel like a videotape you found in the garbage. You don't have to believe it's recording actual events to feel uneasy about it. Unbelievably, A Serbian Film doesn't carry a whiff of this, or at least not one that lingers. It's professionally, which is not to say interestingly, made, very polished, and while I guess I shouldn't beat up on Spasojević for trying to do a good job, whatever that would mean in this case, he also very clearly wants it both ways. He wants his not actually porn, not actually snuff, film to look like snuff porn (professional snuff porn), so that necessitates the use of some pretty obvious prostheses, or maybe just the one, passed around. Whatever the case, with maybe one exception, the graphic horror is easier to dismiss here than it might otherwise be, because you can see Kenny Baker through the R2 suit. But Spasojević doesn't want it to be like that. But it is. But he'd rather you be fooled. But you aren't. And here we are.

If believing, or "believing", as far as we reasonably could, what we're shown in A Serbian Film didn't matter, then, obviously, it wouldn't matter, and this would also be a completely different kind of movie. Maybe closer in spirit, if in no other way, to Andrzej Zuwalski's Possession, another notoriously disturbing horror film, but far, far less graphic (but still pretty graphic), that I saw recently, one I didn't "believe" (let's go with that one) for a second -- it's a film that revels in its artifice -- but which gave me far greater pause in terms of my own personal uneasiness than A Serbian Film could ever have managed. Probably because Possession's effects are in some ways undefinable, and A Serbian Film has all the force of a synopsis.

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Old 12th Mar 2012, 16:45   #8
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I hadn't clocked on to the Humbert Humbert thing. Makes you wonder, doesn't it?

A masterly account, bill.
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Old 12th Mar 2012, 19:12   #9
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Thank you. And yes, it does make you wonder. It makes you wonder "Who the hell does he think he is?"
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Old 16th Mar 2012, 0:44   #10
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A Lesson In How To End On Ten Devastating Words.
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