DIRECTED BY: Srdjan Spasojevic
FEATURING: Srdjan Todorovic, Sergej Trifunovic, Jelena Gavrilovic, Katarina Zutic, Slobodan Bestic
PLOT: An ethical and well-intentioned ex porn star collaborates with an Eastern syndicate to produce a series of art-house pornographic films, and is unwittingly ensnared in the serpentine morass of his film executives’ depraved madness.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite the colorful controversy surrounding A Serbian Film, including claims that it is torture porn and even child porn, the movie is a straightforward—if transgressive—cross-genre thriller, a skillfully blended mix of mystery, horror and suspense elements. Adventurous viewers who choose to watch A Serbian Film should seek the uncut version. The controversial scenes are a crucial part of the plot.
NOTE: Director Srdjan Spasojevic was confronted by the international press and informed that his movie A Serbian Film is nothing more than thinly veiled torture porn, perhaps even child pornography. He responded by asserting that the movie is in fact “a political allegory,” intentionally resplendent with metaphors for the historical, systematic repression of the Serbian people. For example, Spasojevic tells explains that the shocking baby scene “represents us and everyone else whose innocence and youth have been stolen by those governing our lives for purposes unknown.”
Is he being serious? Or does he believe the most effective way to point out the absurdity of detractors’ allegations and deliberate misinterpretations is to posit an equally absurd response? A thorough consideration of this controversy is beyond the scope of this review. The viewer should watch the movie and judge for himself. I present my own ideas regarding what I think the film discursively accomplishes in the addendum which follows the review. Whether Spasojevic intends the film to deliver any of these meanings is a matter of speculation. Despite what I think are some very good points made in the film, it’s my personal belief that he primarily set out to make an offbeat, tense thriller that was shocking enough to be sure to attract attention. He succeeded.
COMMENTS: Lurid and grim, suspenseful and exciting, A Serbian Film is a well crafted, taut thriller that doesn’t insult one’s intelligence. Sporting a chic visual signature and structured with a non-linear, temporally shifting plot, this sensational shocker fires off images that range from bizarre and salacious to astounding and stupefying. By applying the element of satire, A Serbian Film impels its audience to appraise the controversial predicament of contemporary mass-produced culture. The result is provocative, visceral and shocking.
Milos (Todorovic) is an easy-going family man who used to be a successful pornographic movie actor. Needing additional income, he grudgingly accepts a mysterious offer from an enigmatic production company to star in their flagship project, a series of “high art” experimental adult films. What Milos doesn’t know, however, is that the producer, a government agent named Vukmir (Trifunovic) with obvious Russian Mafia affiliations, is quite completely insane. Without Milos’s consent, he doses the unsuspecting actor with a futuristic cattle stimulant.
Poor Milos has no idea what is in store. The real details of the scripts are kept secret from him. Production is arranged like a sort of reality show. Multiple cinematographers with digital cameras lead and follow him in real time as directions are fed to him through a small earpiece.
The films turn out to be an avant-garde exercise in taboo extremism. Appalled by requests to violently degrade women and seduce minors, Milos finally grasps the full extent of the producer’s intentions. Deeply disturbed by the crew’s pernicious agenda, Milos possesses a progressive, but genuine moral compass. His conscience compels him to resist. Yet even the actors he works with possess a malignant bent. Behaving like miscreants some of them seem to actually enjoy being degraded.
A classic good and evil struggle ensues between Milos and Vukmir. Vukmir praises Milo’s “talent,” but wants to ferociously exploit him, to use him up, drain him dry, steal his soul and discard him like a paper cup. He schemes to eventually dispatch Milos with an end fitting for an exhausted stag goat. Milos flees, only to be recaptured, sedated, and forced to participate.
Now at the mercy of the sinister syndicate, a sexy, diabolical biochemist keeps Milos subdued with cocktails of powerful, mind-altering narcotics. When the armed crew of jack-booted production technicians is ready to film, she injects her brainchild livestock aphrodisiac into Milos with reckless abandon. In large amounts the potion turns a subject into a bellicose, crazed rapist, easily incited to violence. The producers don’t just want a sexual performance from Milos. They want brute-force physical aggression, and the formula renders even the most abject perversion irresistible to him.
The bovine sex stimulant compels Milos to confront the most grim, primal dimensions of biological programming run amok. He finds himself helplessly driven to desperately gratify himself by committing horrifying, depraved atrocities of sexual barbarism. Plunged into a bedlam of psychotic excess, Milos is trapped on the other side of the looking glass. There is no salvation for him. The filmmakers have powerful government and organized crime associations. They’ve thought of everything and covered every angle. Milos must find a way to deliver himself, but how? Subjected to violence and sexual assaults alongside the films’ other subjects, will Milos manage to achieve deliverance before he is ravaged of his last vestiges of humanity?
As Milos plunges into a nightmare of lust and death, some of the sex acts that A Serbian Film depicts are appalling. They are supposed to be sickly pornographic in the fictitious concept of a film within a film. The images are not, however, prurient from the audience’s perspective. Presented through Milos’s point of view as an unwilling participant, copulation is filmed in such a way as to reveal little explicit nudity other than some quick shots of heaving breasts. Rather, the frames are composed in a manner that tricks the audience’s sense of perception. This is a cornerstone of theater and magic; people see what they think they are being shown, or what they want to see.
A Serbian Film contains violence that is controversial because it is sexually related, but the piece brandishes less mayhem than many action movies, and remember, it is a work of horror. Moreover, unlike many action and splatter films, the violence is not a gratuitous exhibition. It furthers the plot and the terror.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“In its histrionic dream logic, the movie says as much about Eastern Europe as Twilight does about the Pacific Northwest. Frankly, you’d be better off self-abusing.”–Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)
A Serbian Film – sanitized trailer
A Serbian Film Is Socially Apposite and Cinematically Significant
It is tempting to deliberately misconstrue A Serbian Film, but it would be a miscalculation to dismiss this effort for being symptomatic of the controversy that it addresses. Granted, the filmmakers’ primary objective was to create a provocative thriller, an effort at which they impressively succeeded. The film is unique however, not only in its portrayal of a porn star as a sympathetically conscionable character, but in it’s exposition of audience malleability.
Notably, the picture conveys a grim social observation about the runaway train effect of ever-increasingly deviant pornography. This idea doesn’t break new ground. It’s not one that hasn’t been considered independently of A Serbian Film. What makes A Serbian Film so cogent is that it adds a chilling dimension to the contention. When an increasingly fiendish and jaded audience demands snuff movies, who will answer the casting call?
A Serbian Film builds credibility to set the stage for its postulation not just by being shocking, but by employing exaggeration. The movie operates on a dual plain of horror and subtle, dark satire. Some of the imagery illuminates realities so abhorrent that the element of mockery may not be immediately evident. Satire is detectable however, when sensational elements in the film are very slightly over-the-top, without being contrived.
Three concepts are played on: the misguided idea of justifying porn as art, pornographic contrivances in general, and outright perversion. In accordance with the first, Vukmir aggrandizes himself as being a break-through auteur and pornography prophet. For him, this new brand of pioneering smut is nothing short of visionary. Like Theatre of Cruelty French playwright Antonin Artaud, Vukmir conceptualizes the organic essence of theater as consisting of the coarse elements of naked emotion. Plot, storyline, and method are secondary to a surreal atmosphere conveyed with minimalist, but dreamlike sets, and a nearly psychedelic parade of alarming visual sensationalism.
To Vukmir, the highest form of drama, the best-selling subject matter, and thus the best pornography is based on the most striking reality: the reality of horror and victimization. “The victim feels the most and suffers the best,” he proclaims to Milos. Vukmir takes Cinema of Transgression to a philosophical plain. What appears on the screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, taboo and violent pornography is reality, and reality is less than taboo and violent pornography.
Perhaps not as dramatically, real-life pornographers have clung to similar, albeit watered-down versions of these grand sorts of delusions, believing that they employ genuine craftsmanship to produce solid works of art. This has been depicted in the popular media. Examples are found in parodies of the adult film industry, such as the biographical Rated X about the notorious Mitchell brothers, and in the reality-inspired black comedy, Boogie Nights.
In addressing the notion that pornography (as opposed to explicit erotica) can be a valid medium of expression, A Serbian Film‘s aphotic send up of smut strikes some common ground with David Cronenberg‘s Videodrome. In the latter, producer Max Renn discovers a secret, pornographic BDSM torture program. It consists of a nude woman being strapped to a wrought iron grate in front of a clay wall, and savagely whipped, presumably, eventually to death by leather-hooded executioners.
Harlen, Renn’s media technician, observes that the torture show is “for perverts only.” Unable to discern any significant difference between the poetically substantial and the superficially sensational, Max fires back, “Absolutely brilliant. I mean look, there’s almost no production costs. You can’t take your eyes off it. It’s incredibly realistic. Where do they get actors who can do this?”
It’s a revealing and sardonically humorous reply, in that Max completely misses the point. The dreadful truth is that those are not actors at all, but genuine victims. Similarly, in A Serbian Film, Vukmir tries to enlighten Milos by demonstrating the cutting edge of profound drama and ready marketability, concepts which are interchangeable to him. During the screening of a film in which a brutish, incognito man delivers a baby and then rapes it, a shocked Milos runs out of the room in disgust. Vukmir roars after him that he has just seen high art, but can’t accept it. “Can it be that you don’t get it? This is a new genre, Milos! The new porn is newborn porn!” He triumphantly shouts.
A Serbian Film wryly, sublimely lampoons pornographic clichés. It not only demonstrates the artificiality of commercial pornography, but also stresses it’s superficiality. For instance, in the above scene to which Milo was just subjected, the mother revels in the rape, ecstatically savoring the penetration of her offspring as if she herself were the sexual vessel. This is an exaggeration of the phenomenon of transferred gratification, a form of male ego-stroking for the sake of audience patronization. A staple of adult films, the most common example occurs when an actress expresses as much pleasure and enjoyment in her partner’s exhibitionistic ejaculation as she would derive from her own climax. A Serbian Film satirizes the absurdity of this canon by taking it to the extreme with the new mother’s ecstasy.
Other grist for A Serbian Film‘s burlesque of triple-x entertainment include the male fantasy of the completely and enthusiastically submissive female. A throbbing Venus-like icon of instant sexual gratification, she worships at the altar of the turgid male sexual organ, and revels in abundant facefuls and mouthfuls of scalding, sanctimoniously-sprayed semen. It is an additional tenet of the pornographic representation of reality that women are merely licentious tureens. They are not to be gently made love to, but rather vigorously assaulted, and it is this axiom that the film enlarges upon so effectively. In Vukmir’s production, the assault evolves from the exaggerated, rough, comically frantic sex of garden variety porn, and explodes into a fury of genuine violence.
This leads to the central tent of A Serbian Film, which is its statement about pornography’s deleterious effect upon contemporary culture by way of the slippery slope. In the story, victim porn is the ultimate, “priciest sell.” In the movie’s setting, this is what the social climate has degenerated to.
Traditionally, many forms of perverse and deviant behavior are condemned or restricted. Society pressures its citizens to deny or suppress facets of the human condition, e.g. inappropriate primal instincts. Due to social controls, relatively few people will ever have to confront the disconcerting fact that under the right set of circumstances, they are capable of just about anything.
Pulling out the stops can produce a cumulative, or domino effect. Like domesticated pets becoming feral without human supervision, a dramatic example can be found in the curious case of the 16th Century Scottish Sawney Beane clan. Having isolated themselves from society, the Beanes became inbred and mad, turning into genetic mutants, living off highway robbery and pickling and eating their victims.
The idea of a cumulative effect applies as well to viewers becoming jaded by progressively far-fetched prurience. As the Randy Marsh character laments about his addiction to Internet porn in the irreverent animated comedy South Park, “I need the Internet to jack off. I got used to being able to see anything at the click of a button, you know? Once you jack off to Japanese girls puking in each other’s mouths you can’t exactly go back to Playboy!”
Given that so much commercial porn seems to cater to the gross-out factor at the very bottom of the medulla oblongata’s intellectual barrel, it’s understandable that Randy has become hardened, so to speak. Indeed, if the bizarre, runaway nature of society’s perversions as reflected in everything from crush erotica and felching, to plushophilia and the sexual aspects of furry fandom is any indicator of what can happen when people are allowed to freely indulge unfettered in their kinky twists, then A Serbian Film posits a provocative proposition. If there is no mechanism in place to limit widespread, commercial indulgence in perversion, will sexual deviance compound on itself until the demand for crush videos and Japanese girls puking gives way to cravings for snuff movies and baby rape?
Can we take a cue from history? There is nothing new about barbarous savagery and violent sexual perversion. They have been around for a long time. For instance, during looting and pillaging of those they conquered, Attila’s Huns would engage in a form of monstrous gang-bang in which numerous soldiers would dismount from their horses and fall upon a single woman. The first three men occupied her primary orifices, the additional rapists would cut their own in her body cavity. ((G.L. Simons, Simon’s Book Of World Sexual Records (Random House:1982) ))
In ancient Rome, bestiarii trained all nature of wild beasts, from horses to lions to giraffes, to rape immobilized girls for a leering public. Author Daniel P. Mannix describes a scene in which a prostitute and her pimp were tricked into performing an exhibition of lovemaking positions in the arena, and just when the crowd was growing bored of watching, a wild bear was released to rip the couple apart and devour them mid-coitus. This delighted the audience who considered the stunt to be a very good joke. ((Daniel P. Mannix, Those About To Die (Ballantine: 1974) ))
Historians attribute the origins of the eventual Roman Colosseum spectacle to a boxing style, gladiatorial match staged between three pairs of slaves in 246 BC. Arranged by Marcus and Decimus Junius Brutus Scaeva to honor the memory of their deceased father, the event drew a large crowd to the Forum Boarium in Rome. One thing led to another and centuries later, the Roman mob was showing up regularly at the Colosseum to behold an astounding width and breadth of atrocities.
This is an oversimplification of course. The factors giving rise to the nature of the games in the Colosseum are varied and complex. It is nevertheless illustrative of the notion of the runaway train phenomenon that occurs when an audience is cultivated around, and continually bolstered with aberrant debauchery and violence.
Obviously perversion unraveling to its extremes is nothing new, but its mass production and global distribution are relatively recent developments. Avenues of modern exposition now include Internet sites that deliver video satiation at the touch of a button. One can “jack off,” as Randy Marsh so elegantly phrased it, to anything from coprophelia and foot fetishes to bestiality and child pornography.
This form of electronic dispensation makes paper and ink publishing of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days Of Sodom seem as antiquated as waiting for a town crier to shout breaking news. It is this high tech and widespread commercial marketing of outrageous deviance that A Serbian Film addresses. The movie impels a consideration of the domino effect of an increasing demand for perversion in concert with unprecedented, broad dissemination. It does so with a striking and engaging bearing that abstains from being preachy.
This makes A Serbian Film as thought-provoking as it is horrifying. That’s important because perhaps we should consider the consequences of a commercial brutality industry. Going back to the Max Renn Videodrome quote above, if the runaway train of cultural degradation should in fact, give way to another era of Colosseum-style cruelty, “where will we find the actors who can do this?”