Ebert never got around to reviewing A Serbian Film, but there is a moment which stands out as the perfect "There is a moment" moment: a sadistic film director relates to his drugged and abused star an anecdote about goats, monks, blood, and sexual frustration. Surprisingly, this is not an anecdote about beastiality, but it sums the film up nicely. I will not summarize the it here.
My friend Steph and I were exchanging movie recommendations a few months ago. She told me to see A Serbian Film, and I suggested that she should watch John Dies at the End. "Oh," she said, "that's cult classic territory. I want to watch a movie that'll mess me up." Tonight I asked her for movie suggestions, and this one came up again, just as I had started Pet Sematary on Netflix. I've never seen Pet Sametary, but A Serbian Film sounded more interesting, so I searched Netflix. No dice. Amazon instant? Nope. ...YouTube? Bingo.
A Serbian Film is the story of Milos, a washed-up male porn star who lives with his wife, Marija, and his six-year-old son, Petar. Petar has discovered videotapes of his father in action. "Why was daddy hitting that woman?" he asks his mother. "Oh, those films are like cartoons," says Marija, "for grownups."
Milos used to be the best in the business, but now he gets by on bottom-of-the-barrel jobs. One day, a former co-star, Lejla, approaches him with an offer from her boss, Vukmir, who claims to make art-porn for select clients. He's willing to pay Milos a lot for his cooperation. We never learn how much he's willing to pay, but every time the number is spoken, the conversation ends. It's a big number, and it comes with a big stipulation: Milos will take direction and improvise, but will not know ahead of time what kind of scenes he is shooting.
In his first day of work, Milos forced to beat a woman as she performs sex acts on him. She seems to enjoy it, but he finds the experience intensely unpleasant, and the work only gets worse. Around the time he's thinking about walking out on the whole thing, he wakes up at home, alone and covered in blood, and realizes that he's missed the last three days. Eventually, he is able to piece together the missing time--he's been drugged and forced to commit rape and murder, and his wife and son are involved in the worst possible way. The thing you're thinking of right now? That's what's happened.
Does this sound like the kind of movie you want to see? It's not my idea of a good time. I mostly sat through it because it moves so slowly that it was halfway over by the time I was considering turning it off. I'm committed to a review a night, and didn't have time to start another movie. A lot of people feel very strongly about A Serbian Film; I've no doubt it will pass into the infamy of extreme cinema in the way that, say, Cannibal Holocaust and The Sinful Dwarf have. If you want to see graphic depictions of--well, just about anything you can think of that makes people uncomfortable--then this is your movie.
For me, the most disturbing thing about A Serbian Film is that everybody else talks about how it "broke" them, but it didn't bother me very much. Years ago I quietly believed that I'd become desensitized to extreme content in films, but I don't think that's the case at all anymore. Real events in the news will always have the power to unsettle me, but stuff like this barely makes an emotional impression because I know it's not real, and that when the cameras stop rolling, all of those people grab a sandwich from the craft services table, and sponge off all the fake blood. Basically, I don't suspend my disbelief, which probably explains why I have such specific taste in horror. Vincent Price and Christopher Lee don't actually scare me, but they can put on a good show. It feels weird to say it, but sometimes the gore and the blood and the guts feel as unnecessary as the paper-thin love stories they used to wedge into sci-fi movies in the '50s.
So is it a good film? I guess so. I'm reminded of an interview on NPR's All Things Considered, in which Noah Adams asked John Linnell of They Might Be Giants about the song "Montana", in which a delusional hospital patient reveals that "Montana is a leg". "It's not true, strictly speaking," said Linnell, "but it's grammatic." I don't think anyone should sit through A Serbian Film, but it's very well-executed.
On a side note, I've said several times that in order for me to classify a film as horror, it needs to have a supernatural element. Nothing in A Serbian Film could be said to be super- or para- anything, but I'd call it a horror film. So what does that mean? It can't be an exception to the rule, because there's nothing truly unique about A Serbian Film. So I guess I'll accept thrillers as horror if they're grim enough? I don't know.
Click here for the trailer.