The rare piece of transgressive art that’s more grimly meditative than satirical or allegorical, A Serbian Film‘s most daring aspect may be the muddle of soul-searching it demands from its audience. With sickeningly smooth digital cinematography and a terminally rusted conscience, the film pummels an assembly line of taboos beyond the point of recognition—indeed, nearly beyond perversion. The filial kink and corporeal grittiness set out not to offend our rubric of taste, but to dismantle it, and thereby reveal the pensively anthropological nuance of their grotesqueness.
Pasolini’s similarly disturbing Salò bemoaned the manner in which fascism cultivates a world with two classes and no exploitative limits; one suspects from the title that A Serbian Film‘s raucousness is meant to be taken as an analogous socio-political salvo. But aside from a sputtering monologue comparing Serbia’s masses to raped, dithering orphans, writer-director Srđan Spasojević‘s content flowers with mostly psychological resonance; his film is better than the nationalist lividness that may have been its impetus.
The first two acts have the doggedly but comfortably formulaic structure of a folktale: A shaggy, retired porn star, Miloš (Srđan Todorović), once known as an “artist of fuck” for his indomitable virility and camera-friendly technique, is offered a tidy sum by an enigmatic, Rasputin-eyed movie director named Vukmir (Sergej Trifunović) to perform one last time on a cryptic project. These expository details are disseminated with an inelegance that, oddly, never quite tips over into camp, and the pithiness fills us with uneasy anticipation. We’re not invited to laugh when negotiations with Vukmir occur in dim, oblong rooms washed out with faded yellows; or when Miloš trains for the unknown demands of his new role by jogging and play-raping his buxom, supportive wife (Jelena Gavrilović); or when we watch a Giacometti-thin prostitute futilely sucking off Miloš‘s corrupt and jaundiced police-officer brother (Slobodan Beštić). The sobriety of this raggedy setup forces us to analyze the envelope-pushing elements, when they arrive, when we’d much rather allow them to shower over us and roll down the mental drain as cheap gimmicks.
In the opening scene, Miloš and his wife discover their preadolescent son curiously watching one of his father’s early films. Later, the three of them calmly discuss the content, and Miloš encourages the boy to explore his inchoate arousal. (The lad describes the sensation, with canny specificity, as a “family of wheels” turning behind his “willie.”) During the shooting of Vukmir’s flick, Miloš is coerced into receiving a blowjob from a freshly beaten woman while an 11- or 12-year-old girl in a blue-and-white Alice in Wonderland dress steadily watches and urges him on. Much like Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin, A Serbian Film daringly sexualizes the prepubescent experience by acknowledging—and perhaps even celebrating—the psychology of witnessing. Both films, too, recognize voyeurism as essential to development, not only because it helps to take the guesswork out of erotic preference, but because the observer “floats” in a space where they can become both passive and active, both aggressor and victim. As Vukmir’s film, which takes place in a center for abused and orphaned children, starts to animalistically unhinge itself, the boundaries between those roles begin to both blur and shriek.
All of the film’s graphic content, most of it saved for the last 25 minutes, is notably unspoolled through a medium. We watch a movie within the movie wherein a man delivers a baby and has intercourse with it, but the focus is less on the act being depicted than the market for outrageously exaggerated sadism. (“Newborn porn!” Vukmir brightly coins it.) And in the bleeding tone poem of a finale we piece together Miloš‘s three days of bull aphrodisiac-induced incest and decapitation through a series of flashbacks and miniDV tapes. The brute force of Spasojević‘s creative explicitness in these sequences occasionally trumps his modest visual prowess; even the idea of the oral exhibition described above is far more piquant than the scene’s requisite Twin Peaks checkered tile floor and “down the rabbit hole” lighting cues. But this weakness, too, suits the film’s gnarled attitude toward optical stimulation. As Miloš steadily discovers both what he’s been manipulated to accomplish and what’s been done to him, the horrors are magnified through the prism of his memory. It’s not about what we’ve seen so much as how what Miloš “sees” and commits then affects him. The same thirst for forbidden imagery that acts as an initiation to sex for Miloš‘s son signals Miloš‘s valediction toward the same—and possibly the audience’s as well.
The dreamy realm in which human desire, memory, and fantasy collide and intermingle is a wickedly necessary one; it encompasses the urges and peculiarities that not only perpetuate mankind as a species, but incubate individual personality. And A Serbian Film understands that this area of the mind is where we are at our most impressionable and vulnerable. (The movie’s rotation of sadomasochism is both evil and primeval.) Spasojević excels at collapsing conceptual space and leaving us to erect impromptu shelters out of the steaming rubble; there’s practically no distinction here between rapist and victim, between pre- and post- adolescent sexuality, and in two sensational examples, between the sex act itself and its product. But while the sheer extremism of this vision is likely to obtain a cult following, A Serbian Film shouldn’t be mistaken for absurdism. We’re most intimidated not by the imagery itself, but by the hazy, primitive sector of our brains that the movie shocks out of torpidity. Spasojević knows man’s ultimate dirty secret: We are all born into—and out of—histories of tasteless perversion that we silence as we begin to consider the needs of others as well as our own.