A lot of people wouldn’t have heard of this picture if it hadn’t been pulled, eleventh hour, from the FrightFest 2010 programme. The pull came as a result of the BBFC demanding over forty cuts, amounting to over four minutes of running time, pretty much at the last minute. The film-makers decided that would be impossible to achieve in the time given – and also: it would compromise the overall vision of the movie; the whole thing had been shown in full at festivals before; and the audience had full access to the Internet, knew what to expect, and were grown adults capable of making up their own minds.
Anyway, I’ve seen it, and I thought I would give some random, uncoordinated thoughts on the picture as a whole.
The director has made various comments as to the violence being either a commentary on, a metaphor for, influenced by, a result of, or a reflection on the violence in Serbia’s history. It’s always tempting, in the face of such pronouncements, to think “you’re a pretentious twat”. (For example, while viewing a documentary on A Nightmare on Elm Street as a teenager, an onscreen commentator argued Freddy’s glove was scary because it played on a shared genetic memory of a tiger’s claw reaching into a cave, whereupon my grandmother tutted and said “you pretentious twat”).
However, upon viewing the film, it’s very clear it’s intended to work on this level. It could be far more gory, exploitative and full-on vile if all it wanted was a medal for those things. The film is full of borderline-impenetrable symbolism and imagery, and couldn’t more clearly be trying to mean something. More on which in a minute.
The visceral content aside, it’s wonderfully lit, framed and filmed. I mean, it’sbeautifully shot. You could, as the cliche goes, probably take a frame at random and find an effective screenshot. In comparison to absolute trash like the August Underground films, it’s in a whole different cinematic league – undeniably. And the acting, especially from the main character, is very good indeed.
Unfortunately, points 1 and 2 aren’t really enough. Even though the references to the Serbo-Croatian war are there, they appear so deliberately specific that most will be wasted on a woefully under-educated international audience (including myself), so it’s impossible to judge how effective they might be. I could tell the links were there. The problem was that, having no real idea what they meant, I had no choice but to follow the plot literally on its own terms, which, I suspect, is how most people will come to it. (Although, obviously, I hesitate to presume everyone is as ignorant as me).
This is the basic plot [contains spoilers, and triggers, as does the following section].
The first thing to note about the Wiki description is that it’s basically a description of atrocities, and is actually far more salacious in tone than the film itself. Having its cake and eating it, you might say (look at this sick filth!), much as many newspaper reports did around the time of the FrightFest pull.
The second thing to note is that it doesn’t really describe the effect of the film at all, because it renders all the horrors in the same monotone palette. A man being killed by an erect penis thrust into his eye is about as convincing on screen as you’d imagine it would be in real life (ie not at all). Some of the other scenes aren’t as they are described, and the most infamous part – while undeniably horrible as a concept – appears on screen for a second or two, and even then is mostly implied. I can understand the BBFC wanting cuts – and, in my opinion, it would genuinely benefit from a few – but I actually can’t see four minutes being necessary.
That isn’t to say it’s not a horrific film. It most certainly is. But it is to say there’s a fair amount of hype around it. These things are impossible to quantify, but I would watch A Serbian Film again before I sat through Grotesque (banned entirely last year, and a dreadful piece of work) or Irreversible (freely available, and, in its own horrible way, a shattering masterpiece). It’s probably on a par with Martyrs, as these things go.
Actually, Irreversible is a significant comparison here. Both films share similar production values and levels of artistry. Noe’s film, despite being much more distressing to watch than A Serbian Film, is ultimately a much more rewarding experience because of its transcendent ending. A Serbian Film is genuinely nihilistic and pushes you ever further into the filth – witness the description of the last scene on the wiki link – whereas Irreversible does the opposite, if only temporarily: rewinding you to sun-lit happiness from a much darker point you’re going to reach, like it or not.
Whatever the director’s intentions, it works far better for ne as a horror film about the porn industry than it does about Serbia’s past. As (horrific) commentary on the processes, impacts and escalations of pornography, the film is actually very effective indeed, give or take. The central message of human beings as meat, following instincts, authority and instruction, in ever-intensifying scenarios, fits that narrative better than it does one around a specific war, or a country recovering from that war.
(It doesn’t quite work, of course, because retro-fitting a narrative onto a film this precise is always going to end up a little malformed. For example, the main character is too much of a misogynist from the start. The sexual violence isn’t handled carefully enough to justify that point. And so on).
Why are you watching this?
Well, first of all, let me say my favourite film in the world ever is The Princess Bride. That’s an absolute. Possibly followed by About A Boy. (No, really). Or else Stand By Me. Last night alone, I had a conversation on twitter about how wonderful Labyrinth is. And it is. I would watch all of those again a hundred times before watching A Serbian Film again once.
That said, there’s a place for horror. Today, the Guardian published its top 25 horror films (here), and, while there’s nothing wrong with that list, it’s ultimately very safe. If anything, it sort of begs the question of what horror is for. I like a lot of the films on that list, but I’d happily watch all of them again, and might even put them on for fun. Should horror be fun? Sometimes, maybe. But in a world where commercial horror films contain mindless atrocities to be cheered along at (I’m looking at you, Saw franchise) or where top ten lists favour films you can stroke a beard to, there’s something to be said for a film you never, ever, everwant to watch again – but are still, weirdly, glad you did. Because it managed to be challenging, discomforting, confrontational and genuinely disturbing. A serious film – or, indeed, a book – that you want to throw against a wall – and would do, except you know that won’t make it go away.
A Serbian Film doesn’t manage to be that worthwhile, but it’s not half as terrible as you might have been led to believe. And unlike the vile-as-fuck The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, it’s not available in Asda with Danny Dyer’s face on the DVD cover. That said, it is – obviously – very much not for everyone.