Home Video Hovel- A Serbian Film
It would be nice – and maybe even more professional – to write a review of Srđan Spasojević’s A Serbian Film without referencing the controversy surrounding it. To engage only with the film itself and analyze solely that which is contained within its running time would perhaps be the more respectable thing to do. Unfortunately, though, I’ve watched A Serbian Film and have discovered there’s not much else worth discussing.
For the unaware, the controversial reactions to the film are, generally, based around the many graphically and sexually violent scenarios and images and, specifically, focused on two scenes depicting the rape of a newborn and, later, a young child. For the record, the version being released in the U.S. on DVD and which I am reviewing here contains edits in both of those scenes. Due to said edits, these particular scenes are more excruciating in what they imply than what they show. Still, the film contains plenty of other explicitly portrayed images to horrify and upset the viewer.
One of the most disturbing films ever made is John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. While that film is, in total, less gruesome and gory than A Serbian Film, it works, wonderfully and disgustingly, because it is so well-made and transformative a work of art. Spasojević’s movie, despite its admittedly inventive shock and brutality, lacks that well-crafted frame on which to hang its outrageousness. Divorced from any sympathetic context, the things that happen here come dangerously close to being just plain silly.
The story is that of Miloš, a legendary porn star now living with his wife and son in an early retirement he took not due to financial success but moral weariness. Still in need of money to get by, he is approached by an eccentric porn director offering an astronomical sum to star in one last film. From that point on, he is forced deeper and deeper into the director’s vision and made to do things he wouldn’t have thought himself capable of.
Spasojević makes clear early on his intention to create an “arthouse” film in the least considered, most superficial way. There are so many long takes of Miloš sitting and smoking in silence and so many scenes of semi-cryptic, ominous-sounding conversations that you start to wonder if the director is padding the run time, stretching things out to feature length so that the only stuff he’s really interested in shooting has a legitimate home. Eventually, you may find yourself clamoring for more atrocities to behold just to break the tedium. Then again, perhaps this was Spasojević’s intention all along, to lull you into becoming the willing masochist to his smirking sadist.
Hurting the art film aspirations, though, is the overall look and feel. Maybe it’s the nature of culture in a post-war nation but the film’s aesthetic seems slightly dated. The lead character’s hair and wardrobe and the tackily appointed mini mansion the film’s villain occupies all seem to have sprung from a 1990’s made-for-cable thriller. If this is a commentary on the cultural lag of a somewhat recently war-ravaged nation, it’s an interesting one but there’s no sign that it’s intentional.
Cultural commentary as it does exist in the film is what its makers and defenders lean on when discussing it. They say it’s about the self-destructive nature of a country rushing headlong to catch up with the first world. Spasojević himself has said it’s a reaction against “the cinematic fascism of political correctness.” These interpretations along with many others are exactly right. That’s the sole redeeming aspect here. This movie is most assuredly saying something. Problematically, though, it’s saying it in such broad and juvenile terms that it’s difficult to take seriously, like a teenager who’s just discovered the Dead Kennedys. A Serbian Film is a number of things. It’s a social satire. It’s a contemplative think-piece. It’s a psychosexual brand of body horror. Unfortunately, it’s just not very good at being any of them.