Come on in, the water's putrid...
A Serbian Film (2010)
Dir. Srdjan Spasojevic, Serbia, 103 mins
Welcome back to Film Gutter, where we're just entering one of our favourite months of the year and starting the build up towards Hallowe'en (don't try and say you haven't noticed all the costumes in the shops), so we thought we'd do something a bit special here at Film Gutter. Over the last ten months we've covered some fantastic disturbing cinema here, but what we haven't done yet is touched upon some of the genuine classics of the genre, the most renowned extreme horror films out there. And, to be fair, you guys have been asking me to look at some of these films for a while, so here goes. Throughout October we'll be covering five of the biggest hits of extreme horror cinema, starting with this week's noxious morsel, A Serbian Film.
The first I really heard of A Serbian Film was while I was away at a writing weekend back in 2010, and one of the attendees had been to one of the first UK screenings. It was one of those classic stories where people start to drift out in waves, disgusted by what they were seeing, until only him and one other person were left in the cinema. And with that, I thought to myself, I have to watch this movie. Obviously I didn't wait all those years to see this one – this one is a rewatch for the purposes of this review – and it was a move that definitely made a serious impact on me back then. In fact, after that first viewing I promised I'd never watch it again. The things I do for you guys...
A Serbian Film came out to a flurry of controversy five years ago in a manner reminiscent of the early fuss surrounding Cannibal Holocaust, and a wave of criticism that surprised me in the modern day and age. Investigated by the Serbian state, banned over the course of the years in no less than 10 nations and pilloried by various critics for its graphic depictions of rape, necrophilia and child sexual abuse – it's fair to say Srdjan Spasojevic knows how to make a dramatic entrance as a director, with his debut piece rattling cages worldwide.
So, what's it all about? The movie follows Milos, a famed and now retired Serbian porn star trying to live an ordinary family life. But unfortunately he's finding it difficult to make ends meet and find employment beyond the adult movie business. It's at this point that he receives a phone call from a former co-star, Lejla, who says there is a job going that will pay his way for life. Milos is dubious, not wanting to get back into his old way of life, but the pull of the money and the security it can bring proves too strong.
He goes to meet Vukmir, a wealthy, extravagant and charismatic filmmaker who philosophises a great deal but details very little of what his movie is to Milos. He simply wants Milos to be himself, the greatest stud in Serbia, to be filmed and react to what goes on around him. Reluctantly he signs the contract for the movie, and a few days later filming begins.
What follows from here is a series of nightmarish tableaus that place Milos in one distinctly uncomfortable situation after another. Shooting primarily takes place at an abandoned orphanage, where we meet three or four individual Milos will be working with – a highly sexualised orphanage nurse, the disgraced widow of a war hero, her teenage daughter and an unidentified authority figure, perhaps a police officer. Initially all we see are arguments between mother and orphanage worker, but it's not long before things take a sinister twist. After another brawl about the fate of the daughter, the orphanage worker takes Milos off to to give him oral sex while videos of the teenage girl play in the background. The next scene is even more full on, as Milos watches the widow beaten down by the police officer before crawling on her hands and knees to again give him fellatio – while the daughter watches on. When he tries to leave the shoot, he is restrained and forced to orgasm against his will. Not surprisingly, this is a bit too rich for Milos's blood, and after this very disturbing scene he goes to tell Vukmir he is quitting the movie. The intense director seems to take this very calmly, and not without reason – he's drugged Milos's parting drink with a powerful cow aphrodisiac, which will lead to just the film that he was looking for...
It's fair to say that the movie to this point – around the halfway mark – is distinctly uneasy viewing. But there remains a feeling of building up towards something absolutely horrible and unnatural, even though there have already been scenes that go further than many films would dare with violence against women and a pederastic atmosphere. But what follows is a drug-fuelled nightmare, with Milos practically out of his senses and ready to commit astounding acts of violence and being filled with so much lust he has to be held back numerous times as the insane moviescape devolves around him. At first the torrid memories come back in visceral flashes, but as he discovers the footage from the missing times in his recollection the true horror of what he has done is revealed. Vukmir is truly crazed in trying to create his 'art' and there is no boundary or taboo he is not willing to break, and Milos can barely hold on to his sanity as sex and death abound around him.
So, is A Serbian Film really that shocking? The rewatch was a very interesting experience, because the initial impact of that first viewing was considerably dulled second time around. The scenes that are the most notorious – including the often-vilified 'newborn porn' scene – drift into absolute gratuity and take on a cartoonish aspect towards the finale. What left me feeling the most uncomfortable – even second time around – is the message this movie sends about sexuality, which is portrayed in a genuinely disgusting light here. It's one of those films that leaves you feeling a bit dirty and unpleasant after watching.
Rating: 7/10. Well, what do we have, when all is said and done? A movie that slowly builds from a strange scenario presented by the obsessive Vukmir to a brutal and surreal nightmare of murder, abuse and hardcore sex. The tone of the first half of proceedings was more pleasing, and I can't help but feel there was a real sense of reaching for shock value rather than it being something that developed organically. The movie is at its best when it forces you to take a look at yourself rather than simply presenting over the top gore and violence, and whatever message was at its heart gets somewhat lost in that for me. There's supposedly an allegory here about Serbian culture and history, but it's beyond me to sniff that out. With all that in mind, there's still plenty to like about A Serbian Film cinematically, so it's a decent 7/10 from me.
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