Girl Meets Context: This month is Brutality Month on Girl Meets Freak, where we’ll watch some of the most recent examples of ultraviolence in horror movies. This week, one of horror cinema’s most notorious films. Banned and heavily censored all over the world (including a high-profile incident where the director of Spain’s Sitges Film Festival was charged with child pornography for screening the film), A Serbian Film is often considered a barometer for horror fans – in the eyes of some, liking the film is tantamount to an obscenity; to others, condemning the film means you’re a “pussy.” The movie is set in post-Balkan Wars, independent Serbia. It concerns retired porn star Milos (Srđan Todorović), who is approached by an eccentric industrialist/aspiring filmmaker named Vukmir (Sergej Trifunović) who wants Milos to star in an experimental film project – an amibitious art/porn film in which the actors don’t know the script and simply react to the situations the filmmakers contrive for them. Milos soon realizes that Vukmir’s project is a deeply twisted work of depravity that spirals into necrophilia, murder, incest, pedophilia, rape and bestiality. Kristine and I sat down (after splashing cold water on our faces) to discuss the movie. If you haven’t seen A Serbian Film, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Sean: My main question for you is: How much of this movie had you spoiled for yourself previously? I think I remember you saying you’d once read the synopsis online?
Kristine: Yes. I think it’s important that it is noted that – other than Wolf Creek - this movie holds the most baggage for us.
Sean: Because of what? I came to this discussion with no baggage. I didn’t even remember any backstory about this movie.
Kristine: Because a long time ago when I first heard that this movie existed, I made you promise that you wouldn’t watch it because I had decided it was a crime against humanity. We made a bargain that if I watched Martyrs for the blog [which at one point you were convinced I would never do], you would not watch A Serbian Film. But you lied and watched it anyway.
Sean: Oh. So, you were trying to control me.
Kristine: No, you were trying to control me.
Sean: How? Wanting to watch a movie by myself is me trying to control you?
Kristine: By making me agree to watch Martyrs, which at the time, I didn’t want to see.
Sean: Sounds more like you heard about A Serbian Film, decided that you owned my life and that you were going to prevent me from watching it (I am remembering now that you said that if I ever watched the movie it would mean that I was a monster and we couldn’t be friends anymore), and so I came up with the idea to get you to agree to something in exchange. But then I just watched it anyway.
Kristine: Exactly. Which makes you a lying manipulator.
Sean: No, because I admitted I’d watched A Serbian Film (even though I’d agreed not to) right away, long before you ever actually considered watching Martyrs. You made the decision to watch Martyrs months and months after my Serbian deception was unmasked. So you were trying to control me, but you failed.
Kristine: Wrong. Because somehow I wound up watching both A Serbian Film AND Martyrs, and you never did anything you didn’t want to, which proves that you are an evil mastermind, not the other way around.
Sean: How much of A Serbian Film was spoiled for you because you read the synopsis online?
Kristine: That’s an impossible question. I knew that the lead character was a porn actor, and I knew he ended up fucking his own son. I also knew about the “newborn porn” scene.
Sean: So you knew all the big plot reveals!
Kristine: I actually didn’t find any of those parts of the movie to be that upsetting. I found the abuse inflicted upon women in the movie to be much worse. It’s hard to know whether that is because I knew about the aforementioned scenes or not. I think it’s because the son and baby-fucking scenes were totally ludicrous, whereas the lady-abuse scenes felt more plausible, and were thus more upsetting to me.
Sean: Did knowing about the baby/son scenes make the movie less stressful to watch? Or more?
Kristine: I think knowing made the idea of watching the movie more stressful, but the actual scenes more tolerable when they happened. Overall, I have to say that I found this movie ridiculous, and I am glad I felt that way. I was more annoyed than traumatized. What was your overall emotional response when you first saw it?
Sean: The big takeaway reaction I had initially was just surprise because I thought it was going to be this grimy, cheaply-made sicko flick… I didn’t know that it was going to have really high production values
Kristine: Yeah, that weirded me out, too.
Sean: I had mixed emotions about the actual content. I was really rolling my eyes hard at some of it (the more political stuff) and found myself taken/captivated by other stuff (the gender stuff). But I went into the movie with no spoilers at all, just knowing that it made me people die and freak out.
Kristine: That is not true. I told you all about it when I made you promise never to watch it.
Sean: No, I watched it before you told me anything. I must have pretended not to know, to see what you’d say about it. Are you dying?
Kristine: HOW MUCH OF OUR FRIENDSHIP IS A HOUSE OF CARDS BUILT ON YOUR LIES?????? You are a total monster.
Sean: More of a monster than Milos?
Kristine: Yes, way more.
Sean: Um, I just told a small lie about a movie that I thought you’d never watch. I call those kinds of lies “sillies.” I told a couple of sillies.
Kristine: Lies about your actions! Not the movie. Our friendship is faker than Milos’ dick shots. Speaking of which, I was outraged by the fakery of his giant phallus after the movie’s one million pussy and titty shots.
Sean: Well, that relates to something I admire the movie for… What is the “evil” in this movie, really? The cock! This movie takes away all the metaphors by which horror movies generally inflict violence – all the axes and machetes and butcher’s knives – and just zeroes in on what all of that was meant to be a symbolic language for: the erect phallus.
Kristine: Agreed. Did you chant “Do it! Do it! Do it!” when Milos holds the knife to his cock as if he is going to cut if off when he knows Vukmir wants him to fuck the 13-year-old girl?
Kristine: Me, too. And it really felt like getting rid of the cock would solve all the world’s problem, right? That is provocative.
Sean: Oh, I truly believe this movie’s message is: All men are rapists and are the root of all evil… When Milos is peeing blood, I got queasy. And you may complain about all the tits and vadge in the movie, but there was also a lot of cock-biting and damage done to dicks.
Kristine: I didn’t complain about all the T&A. I complained about fake cock compared to real T&A. I think it is a very legitimate complaint.
Sean: I wonder if the dicks were all fake. I am dubious.
Kristine: I think most-to-all of them were fake, and I think it says a lot that a movie that “goes there” with so much of its content, still draws the line at showing a real male member. I was surprised at some of the scenes that made me laugh. Remember when Milos is beating and raping Jeca’s mother, and then he is handed the machete and decapitates her and continues to have sex with her spasming body? When that scene started, I thought it was horrific and soul-destroying, but then by the end it has gotten so ludicrous and weird that it made me laugh uncontrollably.
Kristine: The scene where the prostitute is servicing Marko while he watches home movies of Milos and his family made me laugh out loud, too.
Sean: Well, I just want to clarify a couple of things. The director, Srđan Spasojević has gone on record as being like “this film is a political allegory” about “what the goverment of Serbia has done to the Serbian family” (something that’s most clear in the final shot, where the guys standing over the dead bodies of Milos and his family are unbuckling their pants to rape them and videotape it) but I want to be clear that (a) I don’t feel qualified to have an opinion about that even though I think (b) as political allegories go, this is pretty ham-fisted and over-obvious.
Kristine: Okay, I don’t know if I buy the director’s explanation for the film. Like you I don’t feel qualified to actually call bullshit on it. Serbia in the last 50 years has been a pretty intense place, and is the site of one of the 20th century’s most horrific genocides. Remember when Marija mentions “the Hague”? She’s talking about the ICTY [International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia]. So it’s not as if this filmmaker doesn’t have legitimate ground on which to make a political movie… But my gut says that the director’s political grandstanding has gotta be bullshit. It’s pretty easy to explain away almost any depiction of grossness as a metaphor for the fucked up times we live in, right? Possibly the weakest part of the film is the character of Vukmir, the porn director, and how his character’s obsession with making this ultimate film is an allegory for social control and exploitation. Vukmir is such an überbaddie, like Dr. Heiter in The Human Centipede (though obviously not as hammy as Heiter).
Sean: I actually disagree. I think Vukmir is as hammy as Heiter from The Human Centipede. All his flailing of arms and yowling about art and life.
Kristine: He is very hammy but no one can be as hammy as Heiter.
Sean: Okay, I take that point.
Kristine: “THIS is film!!”
Kristine: Anyway, having Vukmir as the human face of all this evil was lame, I thought. I feel like having a new “director” at the end of the film – the one that issues the order for his flunkies to rape the corpses of Milos and his family – was the film’s way of trying to correct the error of associating the evil with just one man, and was about attempting to show that the evil in Serbian society is omnipresent and/or systemic, but it didn’t really work for me.
Sean: I tend to agree with you about all that. Though I am interested in the movie’s gender politics – all the man-as-monster, cock-as-weapon stuff… I think the movie has a bit of a radical take on all that. I wonder: Can this movie titillate? Or is it just too horrifying? Because I felt uncomfortable with the violence against women in the movie, and how it cut against the (almost feminist) message about cock-monsters. Especially in Lejla’s strangulation-by-fellatio scene, which I hated.
Kristine: I hated Lejla’s pulled-teeth/strangulation scene, too, but I don’t see how it cuts against the movie’s cock-as-monster motif. Doesn’t it underscore it?
Sean: This is what I mean… Up until that point I was like, ‘Ohmygod this movie is trying to make a very feminist point about how the male need (whether instinctual or socialized) to fuck things – literally, to insert their cocks into things and people – is the root of a lot of evil in the world.’ But then I felt like that Lejla scene really eroticized her death… It bordered on titillation. I’m not sure the movie can both make the critique and also ask us to be turned on by the violent rape and murder of a woman. I, like you, found Jeca’s mother’s death-by-machete scene to be much more phantasmagoric and crazy and about the evil/out-of-control power of Milos’ masculinity. But the Lejla scene felt like a moment of quasi-misogynistic sadism.
Kristine: Yes, like I said, the death of Jeca’s mother made me laugh in delirious madness. But I absolutely was not laughing during Lejla’s murder. It’s interesting that you bring up the movie possibly being titillating to some. I had the thought, “Is there someone out there watching this and getting off on it?” and my self-answer was, “Yes, of course” and then I wanted to die. I had the same thought during the rape scene in the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo when I saw it in the theatre. I couldn’t help but think, “Someone in this room has a raging erection right now watching this scene,” and be horrified.
Sean: I do think the movie’s many scenes of intense “depravity” (the “newborn porn” sequence, the rape of Petar) are brilliant for the following reason: What can you show to a straight male viewer that will shock him into seeing his own phallicism, his own license/agency to FUCK THINGS as potentially monstrous and destructive? Well, the answer is the “newborn porn” scene. Or the rape of Petar at the end… I think the movie wants to be a corrective against rape culture in those moments, and I applaud it. Remember that after Vukmir shows Milos the horrible newborn scene, Milos has a gigantic erection on the car ride home… The movie is trying to make a point about the sadism at the root of male heterosexuality.
Kristine: I agree with that. And I like how Vukmir is used to show the culture’s constant need to “up the ante” in terms of sex/depravity/violence. In this way, A Serbian Film is a good companion piece to Hostel, right? Like, ‘You want objectification and violation? Okay, here you go!’
Sean: I totally agree. But where Hostel fucks up the critique, this movie really sees it through. Milos’ pride in his cock and his need to fuck destroys everything, including his son, his marriage and his life. What straight man can feel good about their impulse to penetrate everything with their dick after this movie? Here’s this movie to all straight men: “YOU RAPE. YOU RAPE. YOU RAPE THINGS. YOU RAPE. YOU RAPE. YOU ARE RAPE.” Right? It is such a fucking angry movie.
Kristine: Right. I remember another scene that made me laugh – Milos eye-raping Raša to death.
Sean: I was wondering what you thought of the wife, Marija (who sings songs from The Sound of Music – major eyeroll).
Kristine: I liked her. I like that she is allowed to have real sexuality (she and Milos have S&M sex that is also loving) and she is allowed to have some revenge/ownership after she is violated. And I know this is a random point, but I actually thought that other than Milos raping/killing his son, he and Marija were really good parents! I liked how they addressed Petar’s questions about his sexuality.
Sean: I totally agree with all that! I loved how sex positive and cool they were.
Kristine: And I loved Marija’s summation of porn to her son: “It’s cartoons for grown-ups.” The more I think about that line, the truer it rings.
Sean: I loved it, too. I found Marija to be a great mother and partner and I think that they kind of have a cool marriage. I love how blasé Marija is about Milos’ past life in pornography. It is such a tonic after all the jealous harpy women of other movies…. It’s like, a woman can be cool and not have hang-ups about sex? Amazing!
Kristine: Yesyesyesyes. Can I say that when Milos is drugged and is in “he-goat” mode, he looked so fucking terrifying? I mean, he gives Jack Nicholson in The Shining a run for his money.
Sean: Yes. “He-goat” reminded me of Pan chasing nymphs and dryads around ancient Greece, raping them against oak trees, and it seemed like the perfect phrase. But I did think the Marija/Milos sex scene was trying to make a point… Marija asks for something she doesn’t she realize she didn’t want. “That side” of Milos is brutal and ugly – it’s not sexy like in the fantasy of the porn films. Their sex scene is divided into two sections: the scene that is about his pleasure (she’s on her stomach and he’s brutally fucking her from behind) and the scene that is about her pleasure (they’re face to face, the fucking is more rhythmic and slow). He starts to give her what he wants, but then realizes this is not what she wanted, and so fulfills her fantasy…. I thought the point of that scene is that Milos doesn’t really know the difference between the fantasy women of porn and real women like his own wife.
Kristine: I totally agree. What did you think of Milos and Marko humping in sync and giving each other “Yeah, bro” looks during the rape scene?
Sean: First of all, I thought the conceit of the cattle aphrodisiac was brilliant and terrifying. I thought Marko fucking next to Milos was supposed to act as a mirror, right? “This is what you are. This is you.” And Milos recognizes himself and is horrified.
Kristine: I agree. Also, “This is what we do. We are men. We fuck.” Remember when the prostitute points out to Marko that he is not erect when she is blowing him, and then wonders how Milos can be such a superstud? Pretty heavy-handed, but serves to show how some sexual violence has its origins in male insecurity and jealousy. I mean, Marko doesn’t just want to fuck Marija because he thinks she is hot. It’s because she is Milos’ woman.
Sean: Also, as far as Marko goes, his single dangling crucifix earring á la Faith-era George Michael was killing me the entire time.
Kristine: Ha! Yes! I’m telling you there was a lot to laugh at in this movie, which shocked me. Didn’t you laugh a lot?
Sean: Yes. I was laughing almost right away, when Milos is fucking the actress over the motorcycle in the movie that Petar watches. What a hilariously cheesy symbol of machismo. Also, Milos keeps his money in the Acockalypse Now DVD case.
Kristine: Ha ha!
Sean: When Lejla says to Milos, “You were more than just a porn star, you were an artist.” HAHAHAHAHA! And when Milos is wearing goggles and the tool belt in the other porn movie? Double HAAHAHAAHA!
Kristine: My boyfriend saw that scene and was like, “Umm, my experience in the world of welding did not match this.” I disbelieve him, of course.
Sean: Awesome. What about Marija’s song about a little sad bunny weeping over a frozen creek?
Kristine: That whole song thing was too The Virgin Spring for my taste.
Sean: Good connection! Another part where I was hysterically laughing was the cock’s-eye-view camera, which has to be the first of its kind, demonstrated while Milos does naked meditation to control his erection. That made me die a thousand times over. Also, when Marija says, “Women here like men in uniform- especially if they’re not wearing it.” Just further proof that she’s amazingly awesome and funny. The camcorder tapes marked by cartoon drawings of genitalia – phallus or vagina – made me laugh. And, of course, Raša’s death-by-dick-in-eyesocket was a stand up and cheer moment.
Kristine: I wonder if that dude’s other eye injury was also dick-related trauma. I can only assume so.
Sean: Um, what about the scene where Milos is crouched next to a dumpster jerking off in public?
Kristine: So gross.
Sean: SO GROSS.
Kristine: Weird how the guys who beat him up were down to, like, gang rape that woman, but Milos jerking it in the alley stopped them in their tracks. “This behavior is unacceptable!” they thought to themselves…
Sean: I thought another quasi-feminist point made by this movie was how it takes necrophilia, pedophilia, incest and catalogues them alongside all the facets of male sexuality we consider “normal” – rough sex, degradation fantasies, bondage. It’s like, “No, the fact that you want to slap that woman until she cries and then fuck her actually does mean you’re a monster!”
Kristine: But what about the fact that a lot of those things are facets of female sexuality, too?
Sean: Well that’s what I thought you would challenge about my reading of the Marija/Milos sex scene! I think the movie implies that women don’t really have those fantasies. That women really like face-to-face, loving slow sex – not rough or dangerous sex. That’s only for the boysies.
Kristine: I do challenge that. Yeah, when you said she only enjoyed phase 2 of that sex scene… I don’t know if you are correct. It’s provocative and problematic, that take.
Sean: I think it’s true as far as the scene goes. When he’s rapefucking her the camera makes a point to show her face twisted in pain, her hands clutching the sheets in agony. When he is slowfucking her, the camera focuses on her smiling, orgasming.
Kristine: Sheet clenching does not always equal agony. Christ, haven’t you ever seen Wild at Heart?
Sean: I agree it doesn’t have to mean agony, but I think it was meant to mean agony that in that scene.
Kristine: Maybe so. Evidence for your interpretation is how Marija is positioned/shot similarly when she is being raped by Marko. We see her face squashed against the mattress in the same way.
Sean: Yes, and it parallels when Milos rapes/murders Jeca’s mother. But I think the unfortunate byproduct of the movie’s overwhelming critique of men is that it winds up endorsing a very simplistic gender essentialism: men are like this (bad), women are like this (good). Men like slappy punchy. Women like huggy smiley. But I don’t know. Characters like Lejla are harder to pin down there…. Do you think we were supposed to like her? I do.
Kristine: Lejla was… a situation. I loved that her everyday outfits were over-the-top fetish outfits. It was like Pedro Almodóvar was her stylist. Back to my Wild at Heart reference… I didn’t want to go down this road again and again and again, but I was reminded of David Lynch ten million times watching this movie. Specifically, Blue Velvet (S&M, voyeurism), Inland Empire (institutionalized terrible things happening to women as a matter of course), and Twin Peaks (over-the-top freaky weirdness, and especially the Alice in Wonderland stylings of Jeca).
Sean: Yes, that checkerboard tile Wonderland/porn/dream space was very Lynchian. I think this movie is about cinema and that is very Lynchian. So much of the movie is meta-textual about what movies are, about what they mean. Milos even pieces together all of his atrocities how? By watching them recounted on film. We open A Serbian Film with Petar watching a pornographic movie starring his father – one he winds up trapped inside of, horribly, at the end of the movie. Even the name of the movie calls attention to itself as a celluloid artifact. Raša, the newborn rapist, has a reel of celluloid tattooed on his neck. This is a movie about movies, which is so very Lynch.
Kristine: I agree 10,000%.
Sean: Can I close by saying that when I think about the movies you’ve watched in the past year, I am agog? This movie, The Human Centipede, Martyrs, Hostel, Antichrist, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, I Saw the Devil, Inside… Like, these are movies that have reduced grown men and women to tears, vomiting and nervous breakdowns all over the world.
Kristine: I know! I feel like I am on a grueling endurance vision quest. But what lies in wait for me at the end, Sean?
Sean: A black hole sun like at the end of Martyrs? Chris Cornell, naked on a platter covered with sushi?
Sean: Did you ever flinch or cover your eyes during A Serbian Film?
Kristine: Flinch? Yes. Eye cover? No.
Sean: The dick-biting and blood-pee made me gag. The newborn scene really still got to me. Lejla’s death made me cover my eyes.
Kristine: Ugh, shut up. Martyrs was ten million times harder for me to sit through than this movie. Peen abuse doesn’t bother me as much, for obvious reasons.
Sean: What about the lady doctor getting shot up with cow aphrodisiac and then violating herself with an iron bar and dying?
Kristine: It happened. There is something to be said about testosterone and performance-enhancing drugs and steroids and Oscar Pistorius being an abusive girlfriend-murdering freak but I am too tired to articulate it correctly right now. But I do think it is an intentional connection that the film is making.
Sean: After watching this film, would you ever date a Serbian man?
Kristine: After watching this film, I may no longer be able to have hetero sex, period.
Sean: Mission accomplished.
Kristine: You are a homonster!
The Girl’s Rating: This is horror movie homework – essential to know but not fun to complete AND This movie left me hollow and uncertain BUT ALSO Nice try, folks
The Freak’s Rating: More feminist than you’d think AND Provocative and problematic