“Where there is no life, there is no art”; intones the snuff film director in A Serbian Film, but it might as well be the tagline of the movie. (This was said by the actor playing the director, not the actual director of the movie). While much ink has been spilled regarding the boundary obliterating sex and violence on display in this self-funded Serbian shocker, it is the artistry of the film that one hopes it will be recognized, and eventually remembered, for. However, while full of raw power, the film’s commentary is somewhat blunt, and due to its Eastern European provenance, and a superficial similarity to torture porn, it seems far more likely that A Serbian Film will be regarded simply as the terminus of onscreen depravity.
At the Fantasia screening both the director and co-writer (Alexsander Radivojevic) were quick to explain that the violence was metaphorical and that people in Serbia felt “fucked from birth through death”. Todd Brown at Twitch smartly compared certain scenes in A Serbian Film to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, in which eating babies is presented as a solution to Ireland’s hunger problem. The difference is that one is a crass literal depiction of being “fucked from birth” instead of a more refined, artistic metaphor like Swift’s. There’s nothing wrong with pushing boundaries, especially when you do it as effectively as A Serbian Film does, but writing off the perversity on display as simply metaphorical is a bit disingenuous. These guys are going for shock value even if their film aspires to much more than just that.
With that out of the way, it should be noted that the bulk of the depravity comes in the latter half of the film. An admirable amount of time is spent setting up the story of ex-porn star Milos (Todorovic) and his young family, who are trying to make a go of having a normal life. Money problems are the impetus for Milos’ return to porn, but the real reason seems to be Milos’ difficulty adjusting to civilian life. He is contacted by the Mephistophelian “artistic porn” director Vukmir (Trifunovic), who offers Milos enough money to retire permanently if he will take part in a film in which everyone knows the plot but him. At the same time we are introduced to Marko (Bestic), Milos’ cop brother who covets his wife and family to the point of using family videos as sexual aids. In the context of the Serbian civil war, this familial rot takes on an ominous, rather than licentious, tone.
The shooting of the film-within-a-film begins slowly with Vukmir directing not only Milos, but also the audience through an ever-escalating series of disconcerting vignettes. The starting point is a scene in which Milos is fellated while monitors show scenes of a teenage girl eating a popsicle and applying lip gloss. Much like in Videodrome the viewer is as complicit as the characters, and as the scenes become ever more depraved, we are left squirming in our seats, unable to distance ourselves from the onscreen activities.
And ultimately, what is onscreen is what counts in A Serbian Film. It is a pure cinematic experience, composed less of story and plot than visuals and sound. For this reason the familial disintegration that is at the heart of the film never really took root for me, and unlike comparable films like Irreversible, which was emotionally gut-wrenching, A Serbian Film left me emotionally distant. While this numbness to repeated trauma might be the point, the drama is a big enough part of the movie that the failure to evoke an emotional response to the characters still feels like the biggest weakness of the film.
It’s hard to know where A Serbian Film will end up. It seems unlikely that it will ever get a theatrical distribution in its current form, and who knows if an edited version will hold up to scrutiny. With a title that seems constructed to define the cinema of an entire country, it would be a shame if certain explicit scenes overshadow the rest of the film. It’s easy to imagine that with some moderate editing the artistry underlying A Serbian Film could be brought to the foreground, allowing this truly interesting and exciting film to gain the exposure it deserves.