I thought about watching A Serbian Film for at least six weeks before actually deciding that I would do so. I knew what to expect – I’d read the blog posts and the reviews – and I wanted to make sure I was watching it for the right reasons. I also wanted to make sure that I really did want to see the film. There’s an old saying that goes something like this: You can’t unring a bell.
Nor can you unsee what you have seen.
Finally I decided that I did want to see the film. My reasons are simple and complex, deep and shallow – much like the film itself. Curiosity, of course, plays its part, and there’s also the urge to experience something that is supposed to be so extreme it gets very close to the edge: the edge of taste, the edge of reason, or just the edge of some kind of cinematic abyss. There’s also something about me – maybe a character flaw – that draws me to such extreme material.
Perhaps I was over-thinking this whole thing. In fact, I know I was. In the end, I just decided to take the plunge and view the thing.
A lot has been said about the content of the film, so I won’t bother with a detailed synopsis (there’s a blow-by-blow account of the plot on Wikipedia anyway, for anyone interested enough to look). No, instead I’ll talk about my personal reaction to the film.
The basic premise is that Milos, a retired porn star who is now a family man, is approached by an old colleague to get back into the business. One film – avant-garde porn – shot over four days, and a huge payday to ease his worries. His family needs the money, his lifestyle could do with the boost, and if he’s honest he’s missing the action. So he signs up for a film whose script he isn’t even allowed to see, a project overseen by a creepy criminal figure called Vukmir, who has a sketchy past.
As filming begins, things become stranger and stranger in a porn-fuelled through-the-rabbit-hole kind of way, and in the final act the film turns into a full-on apocalypse like nothing else I have ever witnessed on the screen.
In all honesty, the first hour of A Serbian Film is brilliant. It is tense, carefully paced, and the mounting sense of dread becomes palpable. I found myself sitting hunched before the screen, terrified of what I might or might not see when the extreme footage finally began. The production values are high, the acting is strong, and the lighting and sound are excellent. This looks like a film with a decent budget, something that someone on the darker fringes of Hollywood might make.
Then, exactly one hour into the film, the whole thing tips over the edge.
I won’t underplay this, nor will I stoop to hyperbole. But the final thirty minutes of this film are so extreme that during a couple of scenes it actually descends into absurdity. A lot has been made of certain moments (I think we all know which ones I mean), and, yes, they are as bad as you’re expecting. Possibly even worse. I wasn’t affected by what I saw quite as much as I’d expected, but I cannot possibly say these scenes aren’t degraded (and ultimately degrading) to watch. It would be a lie, and lying isn’t what I’m about – it’s not what this film is about either, and that’s what makes it so fascinating.
Many critics have scoffed at the claims of the filmmakers that part of their intention was that the film is a primal scream against the way past Serbian governments have treated their people, a cry of horror at some of the things that happened there during periods of violent conflict, civil unrest, corruption and ethnic tension. Personally, I believe them. For one thing, the title says it all; there are many allusions to Serbian culture and history in the dialogue; and the themes of the film are quite clearly rooted in that bloody history. A lot of this thematic stuff is lost on a foreign viewer, but enough of it is present that you can’t fail to notice the political subtext – even if you don’t fully understand it.
That first hour, with its slow accumulation of dread and a genuine sense of mounting horror, suggests to me that the people behind this film were trying to do more than simply shock us. It’s a shame, however, that all their hard work is then undermined by the carnage that follows. The film’s final act doesn’t exactly negate their claims, but it does become an exercise in crude exploitation. If they’d actually toned down the graphic nature of the visuals, even just a fraction, this could have been a truly great film rather than just a film with elements of greatness hidden deep within its excesses.
There’s a lot of stuff involving kids, including one scene I won’t even tell you about. This fact, coupled with the exploitative content of the explosive final act, makes me understand why so many people hate this film. But here’s the rub: the ideas presented are far more subversive and disturbing than the actual graphic depiction of them. What lingers, what resonates in my own mind long after I’ve watched the film, are those specific themes and ideas rather than the vulgar images depicting their realisation.
There’s a key scene early on, where Milos is sitting outside a coffee shop watching a family – a man, a woman, a child – as they enjoy a drink and a laugh together. There’s a sense that he’s already seen beneath the surface of this world– glimpsed underneath the sham of human relationships, and the surface brightness of a catalogue-styled life – and what he’s seen there is utter pointlessness, pure nihilism. Nothing matters; none of this happy family bullshit means a thing. All that counts is how much you can strip away from a person, and what they will become when the surface is torn away. How entertaining they will be as a victim.
It all ends on a note of total nihilism. In fact, A Serbian Film is the single most nihilistic movie I have ever seen. There’s no sense of hope or redemption anywhere, and every character is utterly, utterly damaged right from the start. Pure nihilism is hard to take, and, again, makes for a truly unsettling experience.
I can’t defend A Serbian Film, but I feel that I can’t condemn it either. It’s an uncomfortable mix of the brilliant and the profane; simultaneously clever and silly, serious and exploitative, artful and clumsy. I like and dislike the film at the same time. But it’s a film I admire. I’m glad I watched it, and it deserves to exist, but I would actively encourage others not to see it. You can’t unring a bell. You can’t unsee what you have seen. And you cannot get certain ideas out of your head once someone has so forcefully rammed them in there, as if with a bloodied erect penis.
(With thanks to Josh Pettey)
©Gary McMahon 2010