Friday, July 23, 2010

Srpski Film: How Much Art Can You Take?

I am writing this minutes after watching Srpski Film (A Serbian Film). I should probably give myself some time and distance to really think about the movie before offering my opinion, but I'm equally compelled to get this all down while the experience is fresh in my mind.

This is one of those rare movies that gets tagged as "truly transgressive" - comparable language as that used to describe Martyrs, À l'intérieur, and Antichrist in recent memory. Lots and lots of people saying that once you've seen this, you will wish you could un-see it. I have, as I'm sure some others do, a perverse attraction to that - how bad can a movie be? Not in the sense of "it can't be that bad" as much as  "what are the limits of what we can put into a film?" Can I bear witness to what this movie has to offer? Assuming that what is on offer is in the service of artistic expression - and the argument over whether this movie is art or exploitation comes up a lot - then I'm willing to take a look. I would submit to you that, as ugly and multiply obscene as the events of this movie are, it is not mere exploitation. This movie communicates some deeply felt ideas in a very direct, primal way. It is painful and hard to watch, but it needs to be. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be watched, but it probably won't.

Srpski Film is the tragedy of Milos, a former porn star who lives in his native Serbia with his wife and son. Milos was apparently a legend in his time, the Dirk Diggler of Eastern Europe. But that was then. Now, he lives a quiet life of "early retirement" on the money he saved before getting out of pornography. When the movie opens, the money is starting to run low - Serbia's economy is not great. Milos' wife Marija does some translation work, but it doesn't seem to be enough to pay the bills. In the past, Milos has taken quick jobs doing porn, but they're cheap, low-rent affairs compared to past work. Times are tough, and as much as Milos would like to stay out of the game, he still sometimes revisits his past glories, bottle of whiskey nearby. Milos drinks a lot of whiskey.

Enter one of the actresses with whom Milos used to work. She tells him about a job opportunity working for an eccentric director who is trying to make high-end "artistic" pornography. He wants Milos because he was the best. We don't find out how much money he's being offered, but it's enough that Marjia encourages him to do it. So it's a one-last-job story, where the guy who tried so hard to get out gets pulled right back in. Milos meets with the director, the director seems a little nuts, but it's a job, right? He's going to get a lot of money, and the only condition is that Milos will not know what the movie is about. The director doesn't want him getting distracted. He's very valuable to the director - a legend in the world of pornography for being able to achieve and sustain an erection regardless of what is going on around him.

Of course, when the cameramen are all wearing body armor and carrying sidearms, Milos notices. When Milos realizes he's going to get all of his direction through an earpiece, he gets curious.

And when he finds out that the movie is being filmed at a state home for abandoned children, Milos suspects that he's gotten himself into something very, very bad. And he's right.

I don't want to say much more than that, because people should go into this movie blind. It should hurt and shock and stay in your head. It should not be reduced to a series of "scenes" or "gross parts." Suffice it to say, terrible, terrible things happen to people in this movie. People are completely broken and ruined in this movie, in no uncertain terms, under the unflinching gaze of one camera or another. It is as Roger Ebert described The Human Centipede (First Sequence) - "It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don't shine." I don't know how else to put it.  But there are specific themes and ideas to explore here beyond the atrocities.

Calling this movie A Serbian Film stakes its place - it says that this is what happens in Serbia. It also places itself in opposition to Western filmmaking traditions. American slasher films place violence as a response to sex - go into that cabin in the woods to make out, and you'll be the first to die. In Srpski Film, violence and sex are inseparable - the sex is rough and impersonal and given as much screen attention as the violence, and the violence happens during sex or as a consequence of sex, not as a response to it. Children - all but sacred in American filmmaking - are not spared here. Horrible things happen to them too, and nobody is there to make it all better. Perhaps worst of all, everything is presented without the shoddiness or amateurishness you could use to dismiss it as exploitation. This is a well-made, slick-looking movie. This was not a quickie to appeal to a lowbrow audience of gorehounds. This movie was made with technical and thematic care. They wanted to do this. That might be the hardest part of all.

This is a world in which men have been reduced to beasts - actresses work with both with little distinction, Milos is restrained like a penned bull, actors are dosed with horse aphrodisiac. Milos the porn star is a quiet, intelligent man, gentle and loving with his family, but capable of violence in an instant. His brother, Marko, is the more respectable one - a police officer (albeit corrupt), but he brims and seethes with repression. His desires break through to the surface in odd, stunted ways. None of these surface characteristics matter in the end. Ultimately, they are bodies to be used as weapons. Civilization doesn't last. Women populate this movie, but have little power - they are mostly naked, mostly interchangeable, and even those with influence, with a role beyond victim, end up violated, sometimes even by their own hand. Men with guns and nightsticks are around every corner, cameras in hand, keeping everyone and everything under surveillance, servants of silent men in nice suits.

And into this world come the children of these men and women, only to be victimized themselves. This is the point the director of the film-within-the-film makes, and it is the point Srpski Film makes. We are fucked, this movie says without coyness or allusion. We are fucked from the cradle to the grave.

IMDB entry
Release dates on IMDB


  1. An amazing writeup! Now I really, really want to see this. I suppose it will scar me for life, but then again, movies like this were made for such predilections. Perhaps.

  2. This is a weird case: I respect what this movie set out to do and did, but I would never in a million years actually recommend it to anyone.

    I'll just leave you with this: It's worse than you think.

  3. Just watched the movie. Expecting an experience like Martyrs (who shocked me in a nearly philosophical way), this is utterly crap. I'm extremely open watching extreme films (i'm the opposite of a puritan), so i wasn't scandalized or something by the content of A Serbian Film. The real immorality of the movie is that now, XXI century, we still fall in the same traps: the empty provocations.

  4. @Anonymous - I'm curious, in what sense did you think this movie was crap? What do you think it failed to do, specifically? Why did you see the provocations as empty? Not trying to argue, just curious...

  5. @CDE - I'll try to explain myself. "A Serbian Film" is just shocking for the sake of shocking with no subtext or thoughts backing it all up. It's an inept thriller (the lead's brother, the cop... predictable), with a lazy "message" ("we're all fucked up": the depth of any emo song); also, the supposedly provoking content was set up to be disgusting ending just as grotesque (so, I didn'f feel disgusted at all). In sum, a pure exploitation film that will be discussed in art houses because people talk in a foreign language and there are cocks on screen (oooh!). In the "Nothing's shocking" album Jane's Addiction prophesized: "camera got them images / camera got them all /nothing's shocking... / showed me everybody / naked and disfigured / nothing's shocking...". That was in 1988. We're living in times when we're not scandalized by sex, violence and brutality since long ago. So, "A Serbian Film" is an exercise on physical extremism in a society that lives on that verge nearly every day (just watch the news). As a fan of experiences, of extremism in art, i'm hoping for works that try to be disturbing, not disgusting, because let's assume it: regrettably, we can't feel disgusted anymore by graphic violence.