I’ve been putting off watching A Serbian Film for a while now because it is often described as a film so horrific that it goes beyond being an effective horror/torture film and becomes a traumatic experience. As Bloody Disgusting put it: ‘You don’t want to see A Serbian Film. You just think you do.’ – And that’s a dedicated horror website. Once upon a time I was blasé about this sort of warning, I thought I was immune to gore and violence and that there wasn’t really anything that could shock me to such an extent that it would haunt me once the movie had finished. But that was before I watched Martyrs and couldn’t sleep for a month. Now I am much more cautious about this sort of warning though not so cautious I could resist watching A Serbian Film, a film that is apparently more traumatising than Martyrs according to some. It’s the most cut film in the UK in 16 years, with over 4 minutes of cuts, and which was actually seized by police at a Blockbuster store (they still exist?). A film where the lab that developed the prints burned them when they saw what they had printed and which is completely banned in Australia. How can anyone resist that sort of marketing hype?
First things first – A Serbian Film is no Martyrs. I finished watching it about 20 minutes ago and I am not shaking in a corner or staring wide-eyed into space. Sure, I feel a bit queasy but I also ate quite a lot of Easter chocolate so it could be that. I suppose I should point out that A Serbian Film is not really trying to be a film like Martyrs – there are a lot of comparisons floating around but essentially: A Serbian Film is far more graphic and has more disgusting and shocking imagery. Martyrs however, has much more emotional involvement – it’s a film about empathy and philosophy and if you are appreciative of that rather than just someone watching for the shocks and the gore then Martyrs is a far, far more potent film.
Once upon a time I was nearly fired from a job I had when I started laughing as my boss was shouting at me – laughing at inappropriate times is something of a speciality of mine – and by the end of A Serbian Film some of the scenes were just so excessive and so repugnant that laughing was about all I could do. I mean I’d survived the pregnancy scene and the numerous hideous scenes with children, but then the one-eyed guy? Come on! Talk about taking things too far. Have you heard that joke the Aristocrats? This film is a bit like that, just without the punchline. It’s like someone made a list of the worst possible things you could possibly film and wrapped a bit of plot around it. It’s like a pornographic version of Crank crossed with Itchy & Scratchy. Obviously the child abuse stuff is what the film is going to go down in history for, that’s the stuff that mostly has been cut – I should say I watched the edited version and frankly I doubt I was missing anything – I read what the cuts included and frankly I think I am quite OK with missing that.
A Serbian Film is very well directed and shot – it has a David Fincher high definition digital look, it’s pretty well acted especially the lead Srdjan Todorovic and although the script seems a bit shaky the plot is compelling enough – I was far from bored. Sure, I felt like Alex in a Clockwork Orange undergoing the Ludovico Technique, but I wasn’t bored. The music especially was spectacular I thought, really striking stuff. So definitely a cut above your average horror fair in presentation. However there are problems: there is not much meaningful dialogue and there is no real motivation given for the villains that makes much sense. Then most of the acts of depravity are fueled by ridiculous drugs which to me seems like a bit of a cop-out (in fact one of the characters in the film says much the same thing). Compared to the psychological torment the protagonist is put through in Park Chan-wook’s ‘Oldboy’, A Serbian Film feels a bit immature – or at least, it feels a bit pointless. That’s not to say that A Serbian Film is bad, but I think it is a one trick pony. There is no emotional attachment to the protagonist, there is no real sense of dread or foreboding, there’s no suspense nor are there any interesting morality issues raised beyond ‘urgh yep, that’s wrong’. What you get is a series of graphic scenes that escalate in intensity and in how repugnant they are to watch. I think this is where A Serbian Film fails – with no emotional attachment or interesting motivations – and so with no psychological torment – the scenes do not have such a strong impact on the viewer. Oh and I don’t buy any of the subtext about Serbia and the war, or the possible commentary on voyeurism and victimisation – this film is shallow, those things are presented too half-heartedly to be poignant or relevant.
I realise this review comes across as being very negative. I didn’t hate the film, I guess I just bought into the hype. I love Martyrs – I would say it is one of my very favourite films and I would strongly recommend that most people don’t ever watch it – it’s extremely powerful stuff. I was expecting the same from A Serbian Film and it didn’t deliver, so the film felt disappointing: that’s not really the fault of the film, I just had unrealistic expectations.
Overall I am not sure I would recommend A Serbian Film to anyone except lovers of extreme cinema or horror who will certainly love it. I don’t think it transcends the genre in the same way Martyrs does but I do think it is the ultimate example of the sub-genre of horror that is sometimes tackily called torture porn – hell it’s basically the definition of torture porn even if it is of a superior quality. So sure, it’s the king of the genre but it’s not exactly the most prestigious genre around. It effectively renders films like Hostel, The Human Centipede and their crappy ilk obsolete as being both inferior in quality and far less graphic and shocking – their entire raison d’être. It’s more graphic and extreme than A L’interieur which actually looks tame in comparison. So it’s more explicit than anything else I have seen but it is far from the best horror film I have seen. I do dread to think what the inevitable next, even more extreme film will be.
Oh, and it occurred to me that there are some plot similarities between A Serbian Film and The Hangover. This was not especially conducive to taking the film seriously, but perhaps that was just me attempting to laugh at inappropriate situations. You’ve got to laugh, they say.