THIS week on Film Torments’ Month of Misery – you might have heard about this one.
Many words have been used to describe Srdjan Spasojevic’s A Serbian Film. Disgusting, extreme, horrifying, even – according to one critic – “like having your soul raped”. So when I sat down to watch it, I had fairly high expectations. At the time, I was watching one or two horror films a day as research for another piece, so maybe I was a little desensitised, but surely this shock picture to end all shock pictures wouldn’t be diminished by that. So I set my computer up, plugged in my headphones and got ready for the most gruesome, most horrifying, most downright traumatising cinematic experience of my life.
What happened next really was something I hadn’t expected: I was bored. Far from being shocking or frightening, A Serbian Film is boring. The plot, at least, is fairly simple: Milos, a retired porn star, decides to take one last high-paying job for Vukmir, a wealthy fan who refuses to tell him what the film will be about. It turns out he wants Milos to get drugged up and rape/kill some people. Eventually, after a long and increasingly stupid sequence of sexual atrocities, Milos is made to rape two people whose identities are hidden by bags over their heads. During the act, a masked man joins in.
The masked man is revealed to be Milos’ brother, and the disguised victims are Milos’ wife and young son. Then there’s some revenge, including the much-talked-about scene of Milos raping a man to death through his eye socket, and the family decide to kill themselves. Oh, I almost forgot – a film crew shows up after the suicides and it’s implied that one of them is going to rape the bodies. I guess Spasojevic decided that the one thing missing from the film was necrophilia.
Certainly, then, A Serbian Film has its fair share of nastiness. There’s child abuse, dismemberment, incest, and childbirth, all shown in graphic detail (as I saw the censored version, I missed out on the more graphic parts of the newborn rape scene). The thing is, though, that none of it is really shocking. The director puts absolutely zero effort into developing the characters or providing any kind of motivation for anything that anyone does – Vukmir apparently wants to create a great work of art. In case you’re wondering – no, he doesn’t explain it any further.
There’s another bit where Milos’ wife says that Vukmir sounds like “the name of one of Milosevic’s boys”, and that’s apparently supposed to mean something. You see, according to the director, this film is supposed to be a comment on the war in the Balkans, or on the Serbian national identity after that war, or something. I say “supposed to be”, because it isn’t really a commentary on anything.
Regardless of the director’s intentions, this is a film about nothing. Contrary to what Spasojevic seems to think, you can’t just have a film with lots of violence, mention the name “Milosevic”, and call that social comment. It doesn’t matter how much you insist that your eye-rape scene represents Srebrenica if there’s nothing in the film itself to suggest that.
So why, then, doesn’t A Serbian Film work? On an aesthetic level, the answers to that question are pretty clear: the characters are one-dimensional, which means that the audience doesn’t care what happens to them; the violence is shot in such a glossy, polished way that it doesn’t feel real enough to matter, and, most importantly, the story is utterly uninteresting. But I’m more interested in why A Serbian Film fails on the level of political commentary.
If you’re making a film that is intended to comment on particular events, your film needs to have something in it to connect it to those events. Take for example the 2007 horror film Naked Fear, directed by Thom Eberhardt, in which a stripper is abducted by a misogynistic serial killer who hunts her through the wilderness. For the first half of the film, the killer is barely on screen; instead, we see the main character (Danielle De Luca) going about her life.
The predatory and exploitative attitude of men towards women that we see in the film’s first act creates a clear parallel between everyday misogyny and the extreme violence of the killer. That is how you make a film mean something.
Contrast that with A Serbian Film, where there is absolutely nothing to relate what we see on screen to what happened in the 90s, except for a couple of brief mentions of the war. Of course one, could try and make an argument that the film is an allegory for war crimes or whatever, but you could argue for the idea that The Lion King is an allegory for the Russian Revolution, or that Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is anarchist propaganda – that doesn’t make it true (although those two theories are true, and I will explain why at great length to anyone who asks).
Ultimately, A Serbian Film fails either to shock or to inform, and you should watch Naked Fear instead. Seriously, that is a surprisingly good (and surprisingly feminist) film.