Semiotics in A Serbian Film?
Considered the most offensive, controversial film of all-time – I have attempted to review A Serbian Film by looking past the controversy. The article begins with a full synopsis – spoilers an’ all.
Retired porn legend Milos has settled down with his wife and son, though financial troubles loom over them. This is until he is offered a large sum of money for one last job by a self professed art-filmmaker – Vukmir. The job is not specified, but profitability leads Milos blind. His first performance involves being directed to a derelict orphanage where he becomes part of a sadistic reality show. The exacerbating trials of this ‘art-film’ forebodingly blur the fictionality of other participants including an observant young girl. Milos, growing more concerned with the disturbing nature of the film, is shown another of Vukmir’s projects in which a masked man delivers a baby only to rape the child infront of the laughing mother… (aaand we’ll break it here)
Proudly coined ‘Newborn-Porn’, Vukmir’s dark visions are inescapable when Milos awakes drugged with no memory of the past three days. Using video-tapes to aid his recollection, Milos remembers: being sodomized, raping and brutally killing a woman, and finally shown to have raped his own son whilst his brother, a crooked policeman, raped his wife. Attempting to escape the torment, Milos commits suicide – killing his wife and son also – as another director instructs the defilement of their corpses.
A Serbian Film is undeniably provocative with its relentlessly exacerbating controversial content, though its technical execution is somewhat overlooked. The risqué juxtaposition of children and sexual-violence warranted 49 cuts from the BBFC before the film could even be screened at festivals – which usually accept films as uncertified. The film’s new duration, condensed by a record four minutes and eleven seconds, still provides scenes that evoke reactions of disgust, likened to Passolini’s intentionally discomforting Salo – 120 Days of Sodom. However the director, Srdjan Spasojevic, has stated that it wasn’t his intention to simply shock, claiming that the cuts forced upon the film have reduced areas to appear exploitative. This denial becomes questionable when witnessing Milos dispose of a body guard by penetrating his eye-socket with his own erect penis – considering how the addition of extra footage could have possibly changed the dramatic sophistication.
Flaunting a distasteful art-filmmaker as the villain in A Serbian Film strikes with a self-encompassing irony. Spasojevic achieved a more extensive notoriety since stating that the film is allegorically representative of the Serbian peoples’ molestation by the government. This political subtext is hinted at occasionally within the film, with Milos’ brother Marko, a crooked policeman, representing the corruption of the state. Though the application of this metaphor appears frivolous, the technical accomplishment of the film has been neglected by many critics who simply refuse to look past this comment. In spite of intention, this directorial debut is proficiently accomplished in its use of camerawork. The comparison to exploitation and shock cinema is ultimately defied by the filmic quality and professional composition.
The aesthetics of A Serbian Film parallel the levels of absurdity that are reached as the narrative progresses. When Milos awakes from his drug-induced hypnotism, a point-of-view shot reveals his slaughterous revenge. This distinctive use of perspective almost resembles that of a computer game, as the gun in Milos’ outstretched hand rests in the bottom of the frame and neutralises his captors. The film exhibits previous forms of media that had been condemned for their bad taste including pornography and the art-film movement that Vukmir had created in retaliation. By assigning each medium, typical visual characteristics – the pornography as glossy and contrived, pit against the grainy quality of the smut videos – Spasojevic knowingly differentiates his film from those less qualified.
Paced well through the editing and powerfully gritty, urban dub-music, Spasojevic manages to maintain an eerie sense of foreboding. The unavoidable controversy that surrounds the film cultivates a tension from expecting the boundaries to be broken, effectively complimenting the horror like elements of the narrative. As the norms of the typical horror are broken repeatedly, with a more disconcerting twist, one wonders how the film will become more shocking. Though the genred scenes do generate shock, the climax is almost always parodical (as suggested in the eye gouging scene) in the sense of being over-the-top. This effect may not have a typical comedic reaction as its darkly grandiose setting does well to suspend the audience in a state of apprehension. The ambiguous attachment of an allegory may not excuse the dark content of the film, but it does become somewhat disadvantageous in preparing the audience to take the film seriously. Regardless of the subtextual meaning, the filming style works effectively to build tension without borders of taste to contain it.