A Serbian Film (Srpski film) (2009)

A Serbian Film first published by EyeforFilm

In his controversy-baiting debut A Serbian Film (Srpski film), director/co-writer Srdjan Spasojevic uses a particularly extreme form of genre thrills to expose national ills, presenting the thesis that to be Serbian is to be fucked from birth to death – even after death. It is a thesis that Spasojevic hammers home with a film-within-a-film flashback structure that serves as a j’accuse to any casual viewer. “Victim sells,” insists the ‘artist-philosopher’ pornographer Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic), and in the parade of outrageous taboos and ithyphallic atrocities that he captures on camera, everyone (himself included) is a victim, while we are unquestionably the buyers. So caveat emptor.

Milos (Srdjan Todorovic) is a one-time pornstar and “artist of fuck” who has given up his seedy past to raise his young son Peter with wife Marija (Jelena Gavrilovic) – but he is drawn into a mysterious production by the promise of a fee that will see his family “settled till the end of Peter’s life” – an ominous expression. Suspicious but intrigued, Milos signs the Mephistophelean contract with Vukmir, and then finds himself the unwilling, drugged-up star of a nightmare that crudely parodies Serbia’s status as a nation whose citizens have been endlessly exploited, manipulated and brutalised by their authorities into the most extreme of acts. “The whole fucking country”, as Vukmir puts it, “is one big shitty kindergarten” – and the presence of children, as both witnesses to and participants in what happens here, is part (although only part) of what makes this film so disturbing. Another part is the film’s stylised beauty, despite the ugliness of its themes. Vukmir may peddle in the darkest, murkiest kinds of skin flick, but he fancies himself an arthouse filmmaker – and this sensibility informs the aesthetics of A Serbian Film. Rarely is low scuzzy outrage so attractively packaged, with some scenes achieving a well-crafted surrealism that might be described as Lynchian.

When Milos, near the film’s beginning, discovers the pubescent Peter watching one of daddy’s hardcore videos, the semi-retired stud explains: “it’s like a cartoon for the grown-ups.” The same might be said of A Serbian Film itself, which goes all out to shock and offend with scenes of unimaginable depravity, but ultimately keeps its excess within cartoonish limits, offering broad caricatures in the place of real characters. Spasojevic may well have fulfilled Vukmir’s ambitions by creating a kind of Serbian cinema that, in all its grotesque perversion and visceral rage, is devoured by international audiences desperate for sensation – but he has also made that strangest of things, a film that will leave its viewers feeling all at once traumatised and oddly unmoved. Perhaps this is part of the point, as though the film, like the porn/snuff that it depicts, is just raw stimulus, stripped of all genuine engagement, empathy or affect.

No doubt many will be filled with a sense of moral, possibly even physical, revulsion at the vicious transgressions on offer here – but there will be many others who will react with an indifferent shrug, left wondering what all the fuss was about, and what’s coming next. Sure, A Serbian Film is a deeply uncomfortable allegory with something to say about power, totalitarianism and the legacy of violence – but it is about as subtle as a penis through the orbital socket, raping our eyes with its unpleasantness far more than it ever engages with our brains.

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Of course, the graphic portrayal of sexual violence usually marks the point at which the UK’s film classifiers revert to their more traditional role as censors, and when Spasojevic throws children – even, in one scene, a newborn baby – into the mix, he has practically guaranteed the death of his film by a thousand cuts. Predictably, the BBFC has refused to pass A Serbian Film unless it is first reduced by 49 edits, or three minutes and 48 seconds of its duration. It is difficult, though, to stress enough just how different such a mutilated version of the film would be in its impact.

The whole point of A Serbian Film is to sicken and offend the viewer, much as Milos is filled with repulsion and despair after playing back and seeing for himself the hitherto forgotten horror of what he has done. Disgust and abhorrence sit uneasily with titillation or arousal – the more of the former you remove from A Serbian Film, the more of the latter you risk eliciting. Through their insistence on cuts, the BBFC may well convert this film into a kind of grand-guignol entertainment that it was certainly not originally intended to be.

In any case, the BBFC’s position, reminiscent of their many bannings in the Eighties, will serve to raise the profile of a title that might otherwise have languished on the margins usually occupied by foreign-language, subtitled cinema. Honestly, has any other Serbian film ever had so much press on these shores? Victim sells…

© Anton Bitel