Directed by Srdjan Spasojevic
It would be easy to dismiss A Serbian Film on the grounds of its boundary-pushing imagery. “Disturbing” does not begin to cover some of the images and scenarios the film presents, and the anger they inspire can easily hamper judging the film on its merits. At a very basic level, the film is not particularly strong, due a weak metaphorical arc that is central to accepting the assaultive images. For all the talk of the film representing the physical and psychological suffering Serbia has endured over the past 100 years, it does not really explore this idea with any depth. The filmmakers seem to prefer instilling a deep sense of dread, with little, beyond some crass images, to shed any further understanding.
Milos (Sjordan Todorovic) is a retired porn star who is offered a lucrative contract to make a “porn art film” that promises a huge payday. The offer is too good to be true, of course, and he unknowingly signs away his humanity. As the making of the film progresses, Milos is subjected to escalating, torturous scenarios that continually shift the power dynamic, placing him in the position of both aggressor and victim.
Even if one would admire the film solely on the fact that it may push cinema in a new direction, how much further is it pushing the medium than, say, Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Solom? It is perhaps more extreme, but it is “spiritually” more shocking? Is it even a direction we want to be moving towards?
If as an audience we are supposed to believe that the graphic and disturbing natures of these images are warranted, the filmmakers have failed. Their allegory and broad metaphors are obvious and not particularly challenging. One scene demonstrates that you are fucked from the day you’re born, another that you’re fucked even after death. These scenes are just two of many examples of scenes that lack all nuance and are no more than literal interpretations of simplistic statements. Many art films for which the filmmakers have apparent disdain handle similar sentiments more effectively using less painfully literal imagery.
Perhaps, though, the makers of A Serbian Film would find this comparison disdainful, and it would be only fair to mention other horror films that also explore similar ideas with far more skill. The first that springs to mind is Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day. Though not necessarily about pornography, it certainly explores the notion of sex and how it is tied to vulnerability, victimhood and exploitation. What distinguishes it from A Serbian Film is the strength of Denis’ images, which are able to explore the physicality of human existence and how it is tied with our emotional state. Denis is able to explore the notion of power dynamics that exist within our daily relationships, while also relating them to more universal struggles. Her images are disturbing, but due to their visual complexity they offer a more rewarding emotional experience for the audience. On the other hand, the layout of images in A Serbian Film lack any real depth; they are one-note, and at times confusing rather than ambiguous or reflective. This is especially apparent in the second half, which employs a non-linear style. This portion is especially problematic because poor editing makes many sequences incoherent. This leads to stretches where the images lose relative meaning due to the fact that it takes time to effectively establish temporal context.
The only real thematic development that the film explores is the evolving nature of the maniacal filmmaker’s obsession with victimhood. The intention is perhaps to reveal the nature of the contemporary art director, who makes films that nobody sees but are grand and important because they explore the trials and tribulations of the sad and exploited in faraway countries. This could perhaps be an interesting thesis on the nature of entertainment and an appeal for a re-evaluation of the kind of films critics and film societies value, but again the issue is only explored on a very shallow level.
The main crux of the film is to inspire in the audience a sense that they have been psychologically “raped.” Instead of walking out of an award-winning film about victims with a false sense of superiority for having seen such an “important” film, the audience walks out of a film about a different kind of victim, feeling like absolute shit. As this is the most successful aspect of the film, it is worth noting that due to the general shallow nature of the rest of the presentation, the end does not justify the means.
In the end A Serbian Film is only worth recommending if you would like to be tortured for ninety minutes. The film prefers to shock the audience to submission rather than engage in a thoughtful discourse about the themes it presents. Though there is no denying the film is disturbing, it ultimately explores complex and difficult issues in an uninteresting and juvenile way.