The two midnight screenings of director Srdjan Spasojevic’s A Serbian Film that have taken place so far here at South by Southwest have already flirted with a degree of notoriety, both within the fest and elsewhere. The first screening even got a write-up in the Wall Street Journal, the one where the owner of the Alamo Drafthouse, Tim League, who brought the film to SXSW, led the filmmakers and five select attendees in a special type of tequila shot in order to get energized for the screening. I was a member of the audience at this premiere screening, and if you’re wondering why I’m discussing the circumstances of my viewing in the context of the screening itself, it’s because my experience of seeing this film and the subsequent meaning I took from it, perhaps more so than any other film at the fest or elsewhere, was so overtly determined by the context in which I saw it, a context that needs to be transparent in order for me to write an honest review.
The film centers around a veteran porn star named Milosh who, in order to take care of his family, returns to the business to star in a progressive work of pornography by a supposedly genius filmmaker. When he shows up on his first day of shooting, he is followed by bodyguards holding videocameras and reluctantly subjects himself to a few despicable acts only under the assumption that everything he’s involving himself with is staged, but he quickly finds himself in too deep in a plot by the director to manipulate Milosh into performing horrendous acts that are difficult to describe, let alone see carried out on screen. In interest of allowing those who haven’t seen the film to experience its full intended effect upon first viewing, I won’t give away any details regarding what happens. But I will say this: I’ve subjected myself to a lot of shocking films. In contrast to what was buzzed about them, I found Antichrist, Salo, and Irreversible all somewhat easy to endure. A Serbian Film, I can safely say, is, content-wise, the most shocking film I’ve ever seen in a movie theater.
A Serbian Film is intended as a broad allegory. I know this because the filmmakers in attendance iterated this point time and again before and after the screening. Would I have picked up on this otherwise? I can’t say. Serbian Film does suggest a degree of thought going on behind the episodes of abhorrence occurring on screen, but I can’t safely say that a national allegory would be what a given spectator takes away from a cold viewing.
But in seeing it within this context, the metaphorical intent is clear as the two most popular definitions of the term ‘fuck’ are conflated here into one. Milosh gets both fucked and fucked-over, and in turn does the same to others as, say, a corrupt government may do to its people or inspire its people to do to others. In other moments that I’ll refrain from discussing in detail here, the allegory conflates these two definitions of fuck in far more disturbing ways. Thus, the film’s title subversively operates as correlating a horrifying filmic product with a nation that would no doubt reject that product.
There is a lot to say about A Serbian Film, and whether or not this exercise in allegory truly works in its entirety. While I do believe that the film contains shock value not just for it’s own sake, and while I give my due regard to the thought and intents put behind this challenging piece of cinema, I have two major problems with the film.
My first issue is that the allegory only works broadly, not specifically. The entire story of the film is a generally encompassing analogy of the experience of being perpetually fucked by the government, but only a few specific instances of what Milosh endures can be said to carry meaningful specifics that further inform the events within the film’s allegorical correlation with the history of Serbian social reality. The events of the film were deliberately constructed with allegorical meaning, yet meaning often gets lost when considering the extensions of the allegory not within the greater scope of the film itself, but in terms of individual events and details. (Also, if this is an allegory of national oppression, then what is the purpose of the video cameras and the implied distribution of a finished film? Wouldn’t the end product of the pornography being made serve as vast evidence of oppression, in contrast to the intents of secrecy typical of tyrannical government powers?)
This ties to my second point, the fact that A Serbian Film is also a thoroughly aesthetic experience, forgoing the grittiness of documentary realist filmmaking that typically characterizes films of socio-national relevance with a particularly sleek visual and aural aesthetic. While what is seen on screen contains is intended to be reprehensible, the stylistic choices are, admittedly, aesthetically pleasing. Spasojevic and company show a remarkable ability to frame any given scene with a well-honed and consistent visual style, an impressive feat when considering that this is the debut feature for most of those involved with the production. It is in this vein that I think A Serbian Film runs an oscillating gamut never transparently admitted by the filmmakers, one which marries the shock value we seek through exploitation and (horror) genre filmmaking with the intents of national allegory. Thus, some events operate within Serbian Film through allegory, while others suggest a desire by these filmmakers to exhibit such events because they wanted to see them on film in a way consistent with how genre and exploitation typically operate.
Thus, A Serbian Film possesses the danger, in part, of justifying exploitation through genre rather than acknowledging the far more interesting (albeit uneven) union of allegory and exploitation possibly going on. Everybody in that midnight showing of A Serbian Film understood the shock value of what we were about to witness, and attended inferentially for that reason, even if the film went far beyond what we expected in terms of content, so there is an appeal towards exploitation that this film holds whether it wants to or not. I’d rather the approach by the filmmakers and within the film itself to be as transparently proud of A Serbian Film’s exploitative intents as they are of the intended allegory within it. The film suggests these two elements are mutually exclusive. They aren’t.
While A Serbian Film may work partly as an allegory and partly as an exercise in exploitative genre filmmaking (the awkward middle ground of the film, as I see it, lacks in both realms), it hardly works at all as a story on its own. The problem with incomplete attempts at allegory in film is that they eventually lose the story in total favor of exterior meaning. By the end of A Serbian Film, the evil intents of the director with regard to what he wants to achieve in cinema (is he seeking a greater pornographic cinema, or simply manipulating Milosh? The film never decides) are murky to the point that he surrenders being a character to becoming an object of pure symbolism. In effective allegory, characters should simultaneously be both. As I said before, there are many things to say about A Serbian Film, and in some ways its inherent contradictions and inconsistencies make it a more interesting film than it would have been otherwise.