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Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film notes – A Serbian Film

My 2010 notes on Sprski Film (A Serbian Film), transferred from Facebook – along with a lengthy forum discussion.NB: these are notes, rather than a review – so expect a ton of spoilers.  Here’s one we didn’t see at FrightFest …

This keeps dropping in lines like ‘ahh, a Serbian family’ (over a scene of rape, incest, murder and exploitation of course) and briefly mentions that the villain is like someone you’d meet at the Hague, which – along with the title – suggests a specific national meaning to what is otherwise a remorseless, grim, well-made, horrifying (if guessable – is that a deliberate sense of impending tragedy or just an indictment of how limited our taboos are) picture.  I’m not entirely sure what purpose it has beyond ultra-shock (there’s enough hot button child abuse to turn everyone off), and its take on extreme arty porn as a symptom of impending apocalypse is also perhaps too familiar from the mainstream likes of 8MM or even the David Lynch of Lost Highway to be truly confrontational.  We’re in Videodrome territory, with much more gruesome, explicit, unpleasant set-pieces.

It opens with a fuck in an alley outside the Club Filth which turns out to be an extract from a porn film called Milosh the Filthy Stud, which is being watched by a wide-eyed, tousle-haired, innocent little boy named Petar (the child actor isn’t credited).  The kid’s parents come in, and Marija (Jelena Gavrilovic) is only mildly upset that her husband Milos (Srdjan Todorovic), a retired porn star, has left the film out: they even have a sensible, reassuring conversation with the child which convinced you they’re insane or entirely reasonable.  Milos is approached by old co-star Lelja (Katarina Zutic), who has slipped to donkey movies, and introduced to Vukmir Vukmir (Sergei Trifunovic), who has a Satanic beard and wants to make transgressive art porn (he reminds me of José Mojica Marins, in his screen character and perhaps his auteur ambitions) with Milos as the lead, following a pre-written script the star won’t get to see.  Milos is leery, but the money is so good even his wife suggests he takes the job.  Marko (Slobodan Bestic), Milos’ brother, is an obviously bad cop who, as hinted early on, is much badder than Milos knows: Marko leers at Marija’s bottom and watches home movies of the happy family as a hooker goes down on him, then expresses envy at his brother’s potency and lifestyle as shown in his old movies.  Milos turns up for work, and plods around a near-empty orphanage as armed thugs in cop uniforms film all the action, which starts with abusive sex and gets worse and worse.  A sexy mad doctor (Lena Bogdanovic) out of a different film (say, Death Warmed Up) doses Milos with what turns out to be cattle aphrodisiac, and he is manipulated into increasingly awful acts.  When Vukmir exposes Milos to a screening of a film in which a woman gives birth and one of the thugs proceeds to rape the new-born baby (‘This is a new genre, Milos — newborn porn!’), even he calls it a day and walks out – but is pulled back in.

The second half of the film finds a badly-injured, zonked-out Milos – bleeding from most orifices – retracing his footsteps and reviewing tapes which show him truly awful events he has participated in and blanked out: being buggered while unconscious by one of the cops is among the happier moments, and the set-piece finish finds him raping two anonymous exposed asses on a bed with a masked co-star joining in – only for the masks and sheets to come away and reveal he has been raping his own son while his evil brother (who has presumably set this up) is raping his already-raped wife.  This is when Vukmir exclaims ‘a perfect Serbian family’ and Milos and Marija go into revenge mode and kill all their tormentors – the baby-rapist is fucked to death through the eye-socket by Milos’s ever-hard dick, and the others pretty much get what they deserve too.  Vukmir is killed but a coda, as Milos kills himself, his wife and child with a single shot, introduces a new director who has been filming the larger story and we mercifully fade to the credits before a new star follows orders to fuck the corpses, starting with ‘the little one’.

Directed and co-written (with Aleksandar Radivojevic) by Srdjan Spasojevic, this has a distinctive widescreen look and an impressive, slightly stylised use of dim lighting and art direction (the snuff sets look more like a Philippe Starck hotel than the usual reclaimed industrial site) that adds a certain distance that means this isn’t quite the hateful ordeal the synopsis makes it sound like.  Todorovic, who suffers about as much as any leading man in the movies, gives a strong performance: though this features more than its share of abused women (dosed on her own drugs, the doctor pipe-rapes herself offscreen and staggers onset suffering from fatal internal injuries;  Lelja has all her teeth are yanked out with pliers and is literally chokes to death by Marko’s dick), it primarily assaults its supposed stud lead, physically, mentally and emotionally.  Still, I can’t imagine this being anyone’s idea of fun.

And here’s the review I wrote for Empire based on these notes when the film came out in the UK (in an abbreviated form).

Discussion

3 thoughts on “Film notes – A Serbian Film

  1. NB: This discussion is ported over from Facebook, where it was posted in 2010.

    Steve Davies Ahh, so this is the film I’ve heard people talking about. Can’t imagine this turning up uncut soon…

    Matt Wells it won’t, it was pulled from The Frightfest Festival because the bbfc had already cut it by nearly 4 minutes. I don’t even think it will see the light of day for home viewing. Talked about, and rightly so. Like nothing i have seen before. This is one that may well be talked about for some time yet.

    Brad Stevens I saw this a few days ago, and was very disappointed. For all its desire to ‘épater le bourgeois’, the film’s sexual politics are mind-numbingly conventional: the heterosexual family is portrayed as an unquestioned ideal, pornography linked with degradation, gay sex associated exclusively with rape and humiliation, etc.

    Chris Cooke I couldn’t understand his ‘reputation’ when the best they could offer was a film called Milos The Filthy Stud by way of proof of his former stardom and ability as a cocksmith and backstory – the film seems high on violence but coy about genitalia/actual fucking – and one scene is straight out of Blazing Saddles, with a penis as hostage held at knife point – so sometimes the extreme metaphor is undercut by poor plotting and pretentious speeches and there are moments of Dude Where’s My Car in the morning after the night before scenes… In the end I was unsure what the film was trying to say politically as the metaphor seemed quite obscure or too specific, was it the past atrocities that the population were ‘hypnotised’ into taking part in? Their failure to resist? Their complicity? their inability to have won? Their current political scene? Current censorship? Not sure what the point was… But the film is striking, provocative… I agree with you too that its take on ‘art-porn’ is a little tired now…

    Chris Cooke But I will say this – the BBFC’s decision is going to send people to illegal downloads – which is a real pity – the film is worth seeing uncut and perhaps cut too – and I doubt very much that anyone who planned to see it uncut would have been anymore damaged by seeing it than anyone who works at the BBFC…

    Colette Balmain I agree Chris, as is the case with Grotesque, the BBFC’s decision will result in a much wider audience for the film. I have little desire to see it, but probably will at some stage.

    Ben Stoddart Thanks for posting this review. I had no interest in seeing before and I have even less interest now.

    Robert Bailey Now that I know a little about this film, the little I know makes it sound deeply unappealing…

    Chris Cooke Colette – it’s worth seeing – you’ll be surprised at how it’s a lot easier to watch than you’d at first imagine – while of course still being in your face shocking/upsetting…

    Matthew O’Donoghue This seems less like a review and more like a synopsis. Why give away every single plot point and abuse in the film? I have seen the film (through less than official channels, reminded me of the good old, bad old days of Ferman and attempts to track down video nasties) and thought it a brave and angry film. The pornography of the victim, the western media reporting on the misery of the Serb/Croat conflict, the horrors of war beamed into every home with no change for anyone, it seemed quite clear to me what the film was saying. I’m not sure that the BBFC had any choice but to cut the film given their current remits and I’m surprised (and impressed) that it wasn’t simply rejected. I’m sure that anyone who wants to see this will be able to. It’ll just take a little more leg work than usual.

    Colette Balmain Chris, I am still recovering from Grotesque, but at least with a DVD you can fastforward. But will try and keep an open mind..

    Anne Billson Matthew – Kim has already explained elsewhere: “NB: these are notes, not reviews – I write this stuff down after screenings/viewings on the offchance I’ll have to cover the films in detail at a later date, and so I cover things like plot twists and endings that I wouldn’t put in a review.”

    Matthew O’Donoghue Anne- I must have missed that, thanks for clearing it up.

    Chris Cooke Matthew – I am still unsure – I can understand what you are saying ‘The pornography of the victim, the western media reporting on the misery of the Serb/Croat conflict, the horrors of war beamed into every home with no change for anyone…’ but not sure of the meaning – for example – what was ASF saying about Western reporting of the conflict?

    Matthew O’Donoghue Chris- I took it to be a reference to the impotence of the reporting, that once it is established that the reporting isn’t actually changing anything, that it won’t affect the war, the reporting becomes closer to entertainment. I’m not suggesting that the film makers are correct in this view point but the anger of Serbian nationals at this constant monitoring of their war torn lives seems to be reflected by this film. I’m mainly taking this view point from a book called This Is Serbia Calling about a radio station that broadcast during the conflict (B-92, now the Serbian equivalent of the BBC) and the anger shown at the reporting in it.

    Chris Cooke Matthew – I agree partly with what you’re saying – I just find it hard to pin-point specific angles or points-of-view in the film – I worry that it’s much more internal in it’s position and anger, that it doesn’t speak as clearly to an International audience… is it critical of the west for taking sides? Not taking sides? Not siding correctly? Is it pro B-92 and critical of it’s current commercialisation, what is it’s point of view regarding the current political situation and just how hypnotised does a populace have to be to break down the way it did? I agree with what you’re saying about the radio and now TV station and about a perception of Serbian anger at the way the liberals of the country were ignored… just not sure where the film is being liberal or questioning about the root cause of fascism and violence.

    Colette Balmain I personally always think that you really need to see a film before making up your mind. I have often had preconceived notions about a film that have been totally changed by seeing the film itself.

    Matthew O’Donoghue Nigel- I don’t think the argument that it is child porn holds up at all. Porn is supposed to be arousing, that is its raison d’etre, something that A Serbian Film does not attempt to do. The assumption you made would be proved wrong if you watched the film, which, I think, may be Collette’s point.
    Also, I can’t wait for horror to be disreputable again. That, sir, is one of its jobs: to push our buttons when it comes to taboos. This IS a film with a serious (albeit nebulous) point to make about living with the trauma of recent war and the intrusion of the media on that pain.

    Matthew O’Donoghue Nigel- Setting it up as “quasi” child pornography means, as I understand it, that you perceive the intent of arousal in the imagery of A Serbian Film. That is what pornography does, it arouses. It isn’t arousing. It isn’t shot to be arousing. It isn’t even very explicit in any scene involving children. You have used a term “kiddie porn” which is unhelpful and accusatory towards those of us who have watched and found much of worth in this film and reacted angrily to people who have raised issue with this. Feel free to avoid this film but don’t feign outrage when people defend themselves from your notions of a film that you have not seen.
    Delete or hide this

    Chris Cooke Can I say that my agnosticism towards the film – having seen it – means I am constantly worried that I take the position of those that want it cut or banned. I don’t want either, I think the debate should be around the meaning of the film and not it’s right to be seen. It’s got something to say. Yes, I think it shocks for shocks sake, often. But it shouldn’t be cut, banned or ignored by fans of the genre (even when released cut), it’s worth seeing.

    Michael Brooke “On that argument, Colette, I need to watch real execution films or real kiddie-porn, because otherwise I won’t know if I really would find them offensive or sickening?”
    No, because you know exactly what you’re getting with real execution films or real kiddie-porn, and no amount of context will make any essential difference. They’re not so much works of art as recordings, and in the case of child pornography (and a great many execution films too), they’re recordings of actual crimes being committed – which means that you certainly don’t need to watch examples yourself to form a valid opinion.
    Incidentally, the film/recording distinction is one that British law tries to establish, and it’s worth noting that the BBFC claimed that ‘A Serbian Film’ would NOT infringe the 1978 Protection of Children Act even in its uncut form – whereas films like ‘Pretty Baby’, ‘The Tin Drum’, Léolo’ and ‘Ai no corrida’ all had to be cut or cropped for PCA infringement.

    Chris Cooke We don’t need a censor for music or books or paintings in the country, but for some reason or other we need a BBFC?
    We either have laws of the land or not – why do we need an additional body, that taxes every film that wants to be seen?

    Michael Brooke The BBFC became necessary from the moment the government granted local authorities the power to licence cinemas in 1909 – because the alternative would have been the nightmarish situation of assorted councillors up and down the country banning or cutting films according to their own personal whims. So the BBFC was created in 1912 to act as a bridge between the industry and local authorities – and from their point of view the system works pretty well, which is why the cinema-vetting system has been largely unchanged in 98 years.
    The only really significant alteration to the BBFC’s remit was in 1984, when the BBFC was charged with statutory responsibility for vetting video releases, and that’s when things get controversial – because I entirely agree with you: this kind of compulsory vetting is completely redundant in this day and age (I could download the uncut ‘A Serbian Film’ by this evening if I fancied watching it). From experience, I can confirm that the BBFC is very handy when it comes to providing expert advice on potential legal problems with controversial titles – but their statement suggests that they don’t think ‘A Serbian Film’ would run into legal difficulties. So why cut it?

    Gary Couzens I’m in Australia at the moment, and TV programmes have on-screen ratings (same as the cinema ratings) beforehand. Also today, I saw a copy of American Psycho, the novel, shrinkwrapped with a notice that it could not be sold to anyone under seventeen. We don’t have that in the UK yet – the nearest equivalent is the age-banding that appears on some (not all) books for children and teenagers.

    Chris Cooke At least the book remains uncut – I suppose we’re heading that way…
    Delete or hide this

    Michael Brooke A few months ago I’d have agreed with you, but one of the things that David Cameron and Nick Clegg undoubtedly have in common is a distinctly libertarian streak – and a fondness for abolishing overly restrictive legislation.
    In fact, way back in 1987 it was Lib Dem policy to abolish the Video Recordings Act, so it will be interesting to see if they still feel the same way today. Especially since the VRA in its present form is not merely redundant but also arguably a restraint on trade (since it penalises UK distributors financially at the expense of foreign ones), and I’d have thought that would get classically liberal Tories exercised too.

    Chris Cooke The LibDems have been amazingly efficient in acting as a check and balance system of liberal values so far in the coalition haven’t they? I am using sarcasm – apologies. It was tories, labour and libdems that passed the VRA in the first place…

    Michael Brooke That’s why I’m stressing that abolishing the VRA is arguably in the Tory interest too. The restraint of trade argument wasn’t really relevant in the 1980s, since a vanishingly small minority of people imported videos from abroad – in fact, this didn’t become a significant issue until a decade or so ago when multiregion DVD and the Internet made international shopping much easier.
    But we’re now in a situation where UK distributors either have to pay significantly more than their counterparts abroad, or drop DVD extras that make foreign editions seem more attractive – and that’s the kind of argument that DOES work with Tories. Especially since the moral-panic aspect of the VRA is now largely redundant in the age of the Internet – many of the original “video nasties” have been passed uncut, and those that are still cut are mostly deemed to infringe the criminal law.

    Chris Cooke It’s hard to imagine, with Arts, Media and TV ministers not really having any interest in them, other than as a business, that they would be proactive on this issue – but it is, as you say, a business issue… however, film has been a convienient choice of punch bag for labour and tory over the years, only games getting a look in as a rival whipping boy for censorship as distraction technique.

    Michael Brooke Sorry, a tiny factual quibble – when I said it was Lib Dem policy to abolish the VRA in 1987, I meant the Liberal/SDP Alliance.
    I doubt very much the government will be proactive on this issue unless distributors make the case for them, and the problem there is that the majors are quite happy with the present system and know that the abolition of the VRA would disproportionately benefit smaller independents.
    But what’s interesting about the present government is that on paper it’s the most libertarian one that I’ve ever lived under. So in a strange kind of way I’m looking forward to the first big film-censorship row, if only because it will establish whether ministers are true to their instincts or running scared of the Daily Mail.

    Chris Cooke They will run scared of the Daily Mail – they only scraped into power after all.

    Chris Cooke Apologies, Nigel, if you felt I was keen to persuade you to do anything. I am not trying to persuade anyone to watch something they don’t want to – it’s one of the only forms of censorship I approve of – if you don’t want to watch it you are free not to watch it. Choice without it being made for you by Government, unelected body like the BBFC or peers… nor would I infer that anyone who doesn’t watch it isn’t a fan of the genre – that’s neither here nor there… any fan can decide what they like about the genre and what they want to avoid, it’s the nature of fandom… No one has suggested otherwise and I never would. You are still a fan if you’ve not seen A Serbian Film! What I said was that it shouldn’t be ignored by fans of the genre – it won’t be – fans are a broad church, I want people to be able to see it and make their minds up about it once they’ve seen it. If you don’t want to watch something, because you feel the information out there is enough to warn you not to, then please, by all means, don’t watch A Serbian Film. My point was that it deserves to be seen. I have been very critical of the film, it’s content and it’s point of view – I am not a fan of it – but I am glad I have seen it, made my mind up about it and because of that I want other’s to have that chance too.

    Chris Cooke Fair enough Nigel – and your own experiences more than explain why you enjoy and don’t enjoy films within this genre that you do… I totally agree with you on M… whilst simultaneously really rather enjoying INSIDE, as I found both effectively creepy… and INSIDE eventually very… wrong! One of the great things about Kim’s detailed NOTES is that they do leave a person more than prepared…

    Grace Ker ah see, I’m very sick and everyone has a dark side, but this is just gratuitous

    Chris Cooke I’m very sick too…

    Matthew O’Donoghue Nigel- I don’t care if you watch the film or not. If you haven’t seen it you don’t get to make a critical judgement on it though. You don’t have the facts at your disposal that enable you to do that. If you don’t like the themes, don’t go and see it.You forfeit the right to a critical opinion though.
    However, dismissing it as “quasi kiddie porn” is stupid and irresponsible and infers some very unpleasant things about people who have gone to see it. I don’t care what has occurred in your personal life, I doubt very much you care about what has happened in mine and you would be right not to as it would be irrelevant to the discussion. No one used the words ‘true’ horror fan. You made an offensive and erroneous comment and you got called on it. Deal with it like a grown up.

    Posted by kimnewman | May 16, 2019, 10:28 am
  2. More comments …

    Paul Treadaway Good review – I will indeed be giving the film a miss though, I suspect…

    Rob Taylor Really enjoyed your review Kim, evaluating the film on merit – rarely seen for this particular movie. Thank you.

    Michael Brooke My take in the next Sight & Sound is broadly similar – it’s a very watchable thriller and a brilliantly effective piece of marketing: let’s face it, getting an international distribution deal for a Serbian film not directed by an internationally-recognised auteur like Dušan Makavejev or Emir Kusturica is no mean feat.
    But for all the filmmakers’ protestations, it has a lot less to say about the national psyche than they’re suggesting – I suspect they’re relying on their international audience not having seen other recent Serbian films like Dejan Zečević’s ‘The Fourth Man’, Mladen Đorđević’s ‘The Life and Death of a Porno Gang’, or indeed ANY other Serbian films!
    Oh, and don’t believe the hype – I’ve seen it twice (to compare both versions), and at no point did I think I was being confronted with a vision of hell the likes of which has never been captured on celluloid before, or whatever the more excitable commentators have been claiming. I might feel differently if I ever thought for one second that the filmmakers were genuinely corrupting children, but in fact they go out of their way to block and cut those scenes to make it clear that the kids were filmed separately and in isolation.

    Elisabeth Pinto How do you get something like that out of your head, though? Just reading the review makes me feel queasy and the concept of a baby rape… Can’t get even just the idea out…

    Michael Brooke Elisabeth – you already have the concept in your head, and the film adds virtually nothing to it. In fact, the BBFC-snipped version is arguably more disturbing, as it effectively removes all sight of the laughably faked ‘baby’, which appears to have been born without an umbilical cord or placenta.
    In fact, that was the biggest surprise for me: as a parent of young kids, I thought I’d find much of this unwatchable (parenthood really does change your response to kids-in-peril scenes), but because all the scenes with kids are so obviously faked, it’s the extreme sexual violence directed at adults that’s much harder to take.

    Judd Clarke I cant wait to see it. sounds hilarious.

    Brad Stevens What really annoyed me about A SERBIAN FILM was its pathetically conventional sexual politics. Heterosexuality is portrayed as an unquestioned ideal, homosexuality associated exclusively with rape and humiliation, etc.

    Jim Valentine Gotta say I found it a really unpleasant experience when I saw it. Your review seems to imply a kind of grindhouse shlock that, whilst it was there, didn’t overcome a sense of real unpleasantness and complicit engagement with sexual violence on the part of the film makers.

    Judd Clarke you know, i am genuinely looking forward to seeing this film. And I’m not a sexual deviant. I just think that it sounds genuinely interesting and I always enjoy films that push the boundaries of taste. The many reviews that tell me not to see it (e.g. “I can handle watching this but you can’t! I warn you, don’t watch this!”) just make me want to see it all the more.

    Michael Brooke Brad – I was very sympathetic to that argument before I saw the film (especially as I’m well aware that eastern European cinema is a good 20-30 years behind the west in its treatment of gay issues), but I don’t think that it’s especially relevant.
    As far as I recall, homosexual desire isn’t depicted or even acknowledged anywhere in the film, and both the male rapes involve heterosexuals – in one case purely for shock value (based on a character’s discovery, days after the event, that he has been raped – I suspect he’d have the same horrified reaction regardless of orientation), and in the second because the rapist in question has been drugged up to the eyeballs on industrial-strength Viagra and will quite literally fuck any orifice presented to him. As the scene in question graphically (and ludicrously) goes on to demonstrate at the end.

    Maxine Dubois it’s ok..but not what i call a good horror movie.

    Posted by kimnewman | May 16, 2019, 11:54 am
  3. I still haven’t seen this film, and should probably resist commenting – but never mind – I don’t think it is supposed to be a ‘good horror film’ or ‘fun’ – or if it is, then the film’s apparent bleak thesis (to me) of a debased, violent, brutalised and indentured humanity is correct. There is an undoubtedly ‘serious’ intent at work. It has an arty title that frames the film as a specific and universal statement, rather than Paedo Eyeball Buggery Massacre or similar commercial sensationalism. There is cleverness in plotting and an artfulness that makes the film less ignorable than out and out shock fare might be. ‘One-last-job’ and Revenge tropes enlivened and made new by overtly sexual imagery. Workaday stabbings and eyeball gougings, in journeyman hands, simply don’t inspire the requisite charge. The family dynamic lends an almost Shakespearean quality, and demands a psychological reading. The Ever-hard hero is a funny deconstruction of the archetype, Biblical in the tribulation he endures. (Sacrifice of the first born cloaked in modern concerns, i.e our fears of unrestrained, abusive sexuality) Death bringing an end to all is the only escape, but not salvation. Can’t decide if it’s an Old Thing in new clothes, or a New Creature pushing the hour hand closer to midnight. Hell is always with us, and acquires new, sometimes seductive forms. I ought to watch it, maybe.

    Posted by wmsagittarius | May 18, 2019, 7:07 pm

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