May. 15th, 2011
I apologise in advance for bringing this film to your attention. I'm not pro-censorship, but this film had me rethinking that stance. But I need to purge myself, so I'm going to talk about it.
So two days ago, whilst trawling for something to watch after watching the amazing Insidious, Kyle and I stumbled upon a trailer for A Serbian Film. I won't recap the plot here, because you can very easily find that for yourself and I'd rather not think about it in detail, but it looked to be a typical torture porn flick, and whilst I'm not a torture porn fan, I was in the mood for more horror, so we ... um ... "acquired" a copy of it, but decided to save it to watch with our friend Dave. So last night we watched it.
I'm not squeamish. I'm not easily offended. I'm not unaware of how vicious human beings can be. I want you to keep that all in mind, dear reader, before I go any further. I am pretty hard to shock, I'm pretty anti-PC, and I'm very much "each to their own." With that in mind, this film sickened me. Genuinely. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since. None of us have, actually. It's more or less all we've talked about today. I don't think I've ever had such a visceral, physical reaction to anything I've seen before. I went on Twitter afterwards to be like, "wow, I really wish I hadn't watched that," which of course makes people curious, but really? I would not, could not recommend this film on any level.
It's ultra-violent, sexually depraved, psychologically disturbing, and shot in a glossy, highly-polished way which, along with the provocative title and unpleasant soundtrack, lead me to believe it's been deliberately aimed at the American market. It's like "you wanna see something really fucked up? We've got it!" I'm not against ultra-violent, fucked-up films per se (I love A Clockwork Orange), but I can't emphasis enough how deeply disturbing this film was.
So, because when something affects me in a profound way, be it positive or negative, I become I obsessed with it, I spent a lot of time today looking up reactions to and commentaries on A Serbian Film. The director is quoted as saying "This is a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government... It's about the monolithic power of leaders who hypnotize you to do things you don't want to do," and basically claiming the whole thing is an allegory for the Serbian conflict and the atrocities committed during and since. Well, I'm not going to argue with the director's interpretation of his own film, but I will say it's very easy to retroactively ascribe meaning to art that wasn't there to begin with. Night of the Living Dead, for example, is generally held up as a commentary on the Vietnam war, and whilst it does work as a metaphor for the conflict, you'll be hard-pressed to find quotes from Romero to prove that was his intent back in 1968.
Given the nature of A Serbian Film, the boundary pushing, the taboo breaking, the inhumanity of the characters, and the glee that seems present in the slick presentation of it all, it's hard for me to see a political or social commentary here. There are plenty of films that comment on the Serbian situation that do so without resorting to paedophilia, necrophilia, or rape. I'm very dubious of any critique of a film that thinks ascribing a high concept to scenes of intense violence somehow gives those scenes merit. I also think that if a director has to come out and tell you what his film was about, he did a poor job of directing it, in the same way that if a writer has to explain a character's actions to you, they're not writing well enough.
My other issue with the idea of sexual violence as a metaphor for ... anything, really stems from my deep dislike of rape as a plot device. So often in comic books, films, and novels, rape is a shortcut to another plot point. The heroine develops magical powers, for example, as a result of sexual assault. I'm sure we're supposed to view this as empowering - the victim overcoming her trauma to become something greater - but so often, whether intentionally or not, the actual assault ends up being swept under the carpet and trivialised because, well, she got her super power, right?
In A Serbian Film, there are numerous graphic rape scenes, one or two of which made me very glad I hadn't eaten yet, and if the director and supporters of the film are to be believed, these are allegories for the horrors of war, analogies for how Serbia has been fucked over by the West. Well you know what? War is already horrible. You don't need to turn it into baby rape to get your point across. I don't need to see women being beheaded during sex to understand that people have died in horrible ways. If the director honestly had a political message, it's lost amidst the shocking imagery. And once again, I want to stress that making something shocking does not make it intelligent or meaningful.
I'm very much of the opinion that if something - however disquieting, upsetting, or disturbing - happens in real life, it's worth discussing in fiction. I'm also of the opinion that violence for the sake of violence is unnecessary and unhelpful in such discussions. If A Serbian Film has a message, it was lost on me because all I could think about afterwards was how unrelentingly horrific the film was. I did not finish watching and immediately pause to reflect on the nature of war, or how governments across the world mistreat their citizens, because my mind just didn't make the connection between snuff films and political corruption. Maybe I'm not sophisticated enough to be analysing a film like this?
Whatever. The cynical part of me can't help but think the director is clapping his hands in joy at the hype surrounding this film. I also couldn't help compare it to another "shock value" movie of recent years, my old favourite, The Human Centipede. Of course, I came away from THC feeling very different. That's a film that set out to be shocking and failed because the concept was so ludicrous it was impossible to take seriously. In contrast A Serbian Film is so violently shocking that any deeper meaning it might have is absolutely lost. It's an assault on the senses, whereas THC is just an assault on common sense. Everything about ASF, from the score to the dialogue, is designed to sicken the viewer.
Now, one review I read noted that this is exactly the intent, and that people will either shy away from and attack the content because they can't accept this sort of thing really happens (it's worth noting the director says every act portrayed in the film actually happened during war-era Serbia, something there's just no way to verify, so let's leave that alone), or accept it with a sick resignation. I haven't figured out yet which camp I fall into because I'm still processing the emotional affect the film had on me. And I know some people will say that it had such an affect on me proves it's a film that works, but I disagree. Like I said, this film didn't leave me thinking about war or Serbia (aside from the title and the fact that it's shot in Serbian, there's nothing about ASF that screams Eastern Block, and it could as easily have taken place in ... I don't know, New York, London ... anywhere. Depravity is pretty universal, after all. It would be interesting to know how the Serbian cinema-going public feel about the film, or if renaming it would take weight away from the director's comments on it as a socio-political allegory). It left me thinking about how disgusting and disturbing it was.
If the director's aim was to shake people up, he succeeded. If his aim was to make them rethink their values or examine history more closely, he failed. So the film failed. If that was his intention. I'm not convinced it was; I just think it makes a nice justification for such unremitting torture. But again, making something shocking does not make it intelligent or meaningful.
In the end, I regret watching the film, and I regret the time I've already dedicated to thinking about it. I'll never forget it, I'll never rewatch it, and I'll never be convinced it was anything more than a brutal attempt to shock viewers. If you're thinking of watching it out of curiosity, my advice is simply "don't." There's nothing of value here. If you're going to watch it anyway, I would be interested in hearing other people's opinions/interpretations. Some people are calling this film an unflinching masterpiece for daring to delve so deeply into such dark territory. I don't buy it, but all art is subjective. You'd have to work pretty hard to convince me that this is any more a masterpiece, or any more worthy of critical analysis, than Hostel, Saw, or The Human Centipede.
There's a lot more I could (and want to) say about ASF but I've already dedicated more time and energy to it than I want to on a Sunday afternoon, so I'll leave it there for now.