NOTE: This is a review of the 96-minute Australian DVD censored version of the film.
A Serbian Film is a vicious, bleak, nihilistic and angry work with scenes that will burn themselves in your mind. Just reading about the catalogue of sexually violent acts that take place in the film is enough to produce a feeling of horrified disbelief. In fact, if you do come to this film out of curiosity from hearing about what it contains and knowing what to expect, actually seeing it is almost anti-climatic. The question is, is this a film that simply possesses an infantile desire to shock and offend, or does it contain any real substance? On the one hand, director and co-writer Srdjan Spasojevic seems to be using the extreme and taboo obliterating content to aggressively challenge abuses of power, vaguely making it the inbred exploitation cousin of Pier Paolo Pasolini Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. More interesting is the stylistic and narrative focus on artificiality and second-hand experiences, suggesting that it is more engaged with issues of on-screen images of sex and violence.
A Serbian Film is almost a pornographic version of Christian Molina’s Rojo sangre, which was about an out-of-work horror actor who takes increasingly disturbing jobs that push him to the psychological limit. Similarly in A Serbian Film, the protagonist Milos (Srdan Todorovic) is a retired porn actor who accepts a mysterious job that eventually involves him being tricked and coerced into taking part or witnessing the film’s notorious series of extreme acts of sexual violence. Milos looses his soul when he signs on to make the film with Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic) who plays the devil to his Faust. And like all good devils, Vukmir has an agenda and that is to create a new form of ‘artistic porn’ with degrading content that is so real that even the performers won’t know what is happening. Tapping into recent trends in ‘realistic’ gonzo porn, A Serbian Film seems aware of the desire for manufactured reality.
A Serbian Film presents itself as what it is critiquing – a work of artifice that is appealing to audiences hungry for something more extreme than they have seen before. The first third of the film adopts various characteristics of a pornographic film with it cheesy electronic music, crude acting and overly explanatory dialogue designed to simply set-up the scenes that the audiences have come for; which are explicit sex scenes in porn and graphic violence scenes in A Serbian Film. The first of these moments, which is mild compared to what is to come, depicts a staple of pornographic cinema – the ‘money shot’, which features a male, in this case Milos, ejaculating. And it looks deliberately fake; just as such shots sometimes are in porn when necessity calls for it.
Subsequent shocking scenes are then either recordings that are watched by Milos or shown to be memories that have returned to him from a period in which he was drugged. A Serbian Film never suggests these moments didn’t happen, but they are presented as second-hand experiences rather than ‘live’. Even the room used for some of the earlier scenes, with its blacked out background and checked floor, feels like a dreamlike space and features in a one of Milos’s nightmare. The overall visual slickness, instead of a grittier aesthetic, also feels like a deliberate decision to emphasise artificiality. Everything about it feels designed to draw attention to itself as a representation of the commodification of sex through the pornography industry.
Vukmir speaks blatantly about finding new ways to present victimisation. Indeed much of A Serbian Film is about creating shocking images of degradation to undermine the type of sexualised images that are routinely seen on screen, not just in porn but in advertising and mainstream media. There’s a broad parallel to Sleeping Beauty, which de-eroticised its images through detachment. A Serbian Film is less subtle as it removes sexual desire from what it shows by creating revulsion. A curious aside is when Vukmir mentions that the film he is making is designed for the international markets, commenting not just on the availability and demand for Eastern European pornography within Western countries, but also the way mainstream films such as Taken carelessly appropriate issues such as sexual trafficking for entertainment.
While Sleeping Beauty is concerned with broader and more complex issues to do with objectification, A Serbian Film is bluntly anti-porn. The argument that it bludgeons the audience over the head with is that an appetite for porn will lead to consumers wanting more and more extreme images to get aroused. The opening scenes of A Serbian Film depict a society where porn is commonplace and a casual part of daily life, hence the supposed inevitable outcome that characters like Vukmir will cash in by taking porn to the next level. It’s a reductive representation of a complex issue and yet there is no denying its power. Theoretically many film audiences who watch A Serbian Film mimic porn consumers in their desire to see something more extreme than they have seen before. In this way, A Serbian Film aims to punish its audience by being so gruelling. It’s not as clever as Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, which undermined genre expectations with its banality and frustrations, but it is admirable for its audacity. For all its hysteria and nasty shock tactics, A Serbian Film does have something to say about representations of sexuality, cinematic violence and audience culpability.