Good Lord ‘tis almost the season to begin being jolly, as such I bring to you two films that are in no way jolly at all.
A Serbian Film
(dir. Srđan Spasojević)
Anybody who has a passing interest in film may have experienced a disturbance in the force originating from somewhere in Eastern Europe this year. It would start with a sudden chill down your spine and end with you cowering on the floor and shivering whilst your erstwhile apprentice and his droid accomplices look on in perturbed horror. That disturbance was due to some maniac named Srđan Spasojević releasing what is most probably the most extreme and shocking movie yet produced; A Serbian Film. Sharpie and I watched this quite a few weeks ago but I guess I’ve only just recovered my senses enough to make a reasoned judgement. (an earlier review would have simply consisted of whimpers and the occasional cry of ‘OH CHRIST NO DON’T DO IT! DON’T DO IT! NO! NO! HE DID IT HE FUCKING DID IT NOOOOOOO!!!’) I see this as kin to returning to the scene of a bizarre and traumatizing sex-crime, hopefully the experience will be cathartic.
A lot of movie reviews seem to consist of a complete breakdown of the plot with only the briefest summation of whether the critic thought it was good or bad tacked on the end. I don’t want to go into too many details because 1) I don’t really want to and 2) you probably wouldn’t believe me. If you want the story ruined for you then there is a detailed and accurate summary on this wikipedia page. I would only look at it after you’ve read this review and decided you really don’t think the film is for you. If you do still want to watch it you’re best off going in blind for the full impact. Anyway, in brief A Serbian Film is, bizarrely enough, a Serbian film about a retired porn star named Miloš (Srđan Todorović) who is experiencing some financial difficulty. He has a wife and son to support but the savings he made from a career of mechanical grunting are running low. Help comes in the guise of an old co-star who tells him of a director looking to make a new kind of ‘art-porn’. Miloš agrees and meets the director, Vukmir (Sergej Trifunović) at his opulent mansion. It becomes apparent that Vukmir is making a snuff film and Miloš soon finds himself unwillingly cast in the middle of a tumult of sexual and psychological violence.
Because of the initial effect A Serbian Film had on me I couldn’t really tell whether I thought it was even a good film or not. It is best described as a psychological thriller, as the plot details Miloš’ mental deterioration over the horrors he witnesses and becomes party to. The film sometimes follows some of the ‘Mtv Style’ of editing; lots of fast-cuts, angles, piercing noises, close-ups of extraneous body-parts etc. However unlike the Saw sequels the mood can actually shift to a more sinister, menacing tone. In this sense the film is almost reserved, until about the half way mark when all of a sudden a klaxon goes off and the entire movie descends into batshittery. The soundtrack is made up of either menacing ambient pieces during the slow bits, or what honestly sounds like a tractor fucking a tumble-dryer in the middle of an industrial rave. In an insane asylum. In Hell. It’s all quite nifty and works wonderfully in dragging out the most horrible feeling possible from the audience, which is presumably the point. The acting is of a pretty high standard, particularly from the two leads. Apparently they are both pretty famous in their native home, though Todorović is more so as a musician. As such it is our equivalent of Colin Firth and Chris Martin starring in a British remake of Faces of Death. One certainly feels for Miloš’ plight in the face of unrelenting evil and can’t but empathise with his situation (okay maybe not ‘empathise’, I for one have never been forced under duress to rape a bound woman or stick my cock in somebody’s eye or SPOILER).
The production values are also pretty high, which is probably not a good thing. Amongst all the simulated sex and violence are several scenes which will leave you wanting to pop your own eyes out with a spork. On several occasions I could feel my eyeballs attempting to roll themselves around in their sockets. Since before the rise of the Saw films and their soporific ilk I have been desensitized to violence, mainly due to an entire summer playing Manhunt for the original Xbox, and compared to those efforts A Serbian Film couldn’t be described as gory. How the film achieves its effect is in the atmosphere, building up as it does into a maddening pitch, and the actual content which is so disgusting you’ll feel like your soul needs a wash.
The burning question after all is said and done, and done again, and again, is why? What drove the director to unleash this thing on us? ‘Because happiness is a virus which needs to be exterminated,’ might be a good answer, however Srđan Spasojević claims it is a political allegory; ‘In order to lead a normal life in our country, or in any other country, you have to become a prostitute and sell your soul and ass in the name of feeding your family,’ he told Empire Magazine in September, ‘You are raped from birth, and the raping doesn’t stop even after you’re dead.’ Which is fair enough, in all of his interviews Spasojević has maintained a conviction that the film is not exploitative or ‘torture-porn’, but rather a response to the years of abuse laid down on his people by corrupt and violent political and ideological forces. However I think I may be paraphrasing someone when I say you can shit in a bucket and call it art, but at the end of the day it’s still a bucket of shit. A Serbian Film isn’t shit, I don’t think, but the lurid scenes and harrowing plot get in the way of any kind of message Spasojević may have been trying to make. Since watching it both Sharpie and I have been trying to convince everybody not to, kind of like a public service because, as Sharpie said, ‘Once you’ve seen it, you can never unsee it.’
Enter The Void
(dir. Gaspar Noé)
I once considered Gaspar Noé’s 2002 film Irréversible to be the yardstick by which other ‘extreme’ films were to be measured. Unfortunately A Serbian Film came along this year to pull out that stick and twat Noé’s little rape-revenge movie over the head. Now I don’t know what to think anymore. However Noé has made a return this year with another bewildering, potentially groundbreaking effort called Enter the Void, a psychedelic Molotov-cocktail of expansive Tokyo cityscapes, mind-mangling cgi visuals, deep if not exactly potent philosophy, and sex, in abundance. Anyone who managed to sit through Irréversible past the notorious fire extinguisher vs. a person’s face scene would have noticed the surreal and expressive way in which the camera swooped from one moment to the next as like a bird in flight. Here Noé has expanded on the concept, building the entire film around the visions of a recently departed soul as he continues to watch over the people around him. That soul belongs to Oscar (newcomer Nathaniel Brown), an American expat dealing drugs in the neon melting-pot of Tokyo. Within the first twenty minutes Oscar is shot by the police and ends his life lying in the foetal position in a dank toilet stall.
Although his life is over, his role in the film is not. Oscar acts as our eyes and ears as his spirit soars though time and space in order for us to make sense of that which has occurred. The majority of the time he follows his sister Linda (Boardwalk Empire’s Paz de la Huerta), a broken, emotionally unstable young woman with an unhealthy fixation on her brother. All throughout the film we are seeing either directly through Oscar’s eyes whilst he is living, or through the ‘eyes’ of his soul following his own body in flash-backs. The only time we get a glimpse of his face is when he looks into the mirror. Noé has cited the 1947 noir film The Lady in the Lake as his inspiration for this technique; I haven’t seen that film however, so my only point of reference is the Channel 4 comedy Peep Show.
That we are able to accept this is the first of the many feats that Noé and cinematographer Benoit Debie accomplish throughout this spectacular, truly cinematic film. The second feat is how seamless the film feels. As Oscar ricochets from one scene to the next, be it through walls or gun-shot wounds, down sink holes and directly into oncoming cars, I didn’t find myself looking for the little cuts they used to make it possible, seeing the film through Oscar’s eyes, not the lens of a camera. Aesthetically the film bears many similarities to Irréversible, paying attention to the sleazy, seedy side of the city. Noé’s Tokyo is a haunted, seething maze of strip-joints and drug dens, dank alleyways and sepulchral bars. The films are both unflinching in their depiction of humanity, from the overt and often explicit sexual scenes to the sudden acts of violence. Many of the scenes are long, not bothering to cut away from the film’s most private moments. We see sex from the first touch to the last gasp and beyond that, always clinical, never intimate. The film is often provocative, dismissing the audience’s ordinary level of propriety in order to see that which happens behind closed doors. I don’t mind graphic sex if I’m honest, it’s much more pleasant than the levels of ultra-violence we get in much more mainstream films, yet certain scenes seem superfluous not only to the plot, but to the overall experience.
That isn’t the only problem. It is clear in the use of long, drawn-out sequences, hallucinogenic stabs of colour and recurring motif of classical music that Noé’s work is inspired by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, to the extent that it matches that film’s lengthy run-time. Yet just because a film is long doesn’t immediately give it scope. Much of Enter The Void is taken up with inconsequential shots of roads and walls and bits of doors and the like, and some of the films sequences resembling a ‘roided up version of Windows Media Player’s audio visualisation tool, as well as Noé’s trademark punishing strobe-light effect, can sometimes outstay their welcome. The sense of detachment from the corporeal plane that we feel from Oscar’s point of view also inevitably has a deleterious effect on our attachment to the living characters. Oftentimes their speech is muffled, or drowned out by the humming ambient soundtrack, and it is difficult to maintain an emotional bond.
Be all that as it may though as an example of pure cinema Enter The Void excels. There are moments in that film that I can honestly say I’ve never seen before. It will not be everybody’s cup of tea, being replete as it is with gratuitous and sometimes crude scenes. It is overblown and pretentious and far too long but it is also awesome in the purest sense of the word. Just as 2001 was marketed as the ‘Ultimate Trip’ of the 20th century the same can be said of Enter The Void for the 21st.
Also as an addendum, it wouldn’t be a bad film to watch with a couple of spliffs if you happen to be that way inclined.. not that I would know anything about that etc.