A handful of films are so appalling that a strange mystique surrounds them — a mixture of fascination, curiosity, and repulsion. One of these rare specimens is Srdan Spasojevic's 2010 horror entry A Serbian Film. Playing festival circuits last year, it left audiences shellshocked from its attempt to take them where cinema has never gone before — this, after all, is the film that introduced the phrase "newborn porn" into moviegoing consciousness. A Serbian Film sent shivers through internet communities, gaining a reputation as perhaps the most vile movie ever made, inspiring both reviews of disbelief and (like such milestones of depravity as "2 Girls 1 Cup") YouTube "reaction videos." And yet this disturbing meta-tale about the dehumanizing pitfalls of on-camera exploitation also garnered begrudging admiration from critics unable to ignore its artistry or its message. Welcome to "new extremism" — Europe's latest contribution to the horror-film genre.
At first, A Serbian Film seems like just another nasty thriller with a nifty premise. Former Serbian porn star Milos (Srdan Todorovic), famous for his virility, has left the adult-film industry to live a sedate family life, but he gets seduced back into the business by mysterious producer Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic), who professes lofty avant-garde goals and promises an irresistible amount of cash. After sufficient prodding, Milos agrees to join a production demonstrating all the demented preparation and logistical planning of a classified government operation. He will be blindfolded and taken to undisclosed locations, and he'll have no script beforehand — Vukmir demands an unrehearsed performance from his leading man.
Pumped full of aphrodisiacs, Milos makes his way through a series of surreal, foreboding set pieces replicating Lewis Carroll's Wonderland, where increasingly twisted fantasy scenarios await. He's exhorted to beat women in an empty orphanage while a young girl dressed like Alice observes. Figures materialize to pleasure him in secluded, checkerboarded rooms. Henchman guard; cameramen circle.
What exactly is Milos participating in? He remains in the dark until Vukmir shows him video of one of his henchmen violating a baby as soon as it emerges from the womb of an approving mother. It's the proud unveiling of the conceptual root of the director's demented erotic vision of absolute "victimhood." Milos attempts escape. Too late.
A harrowing odyssey ensues, as the artifice dissolves and Milos's id takes over. Soon he is reduced to a machine-like instrument of compulsive, vicious lust and dominance reminiscent of Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth from Blue Velvet. Milos finds himself sucked farther and farther down a very dark rabbit hole. What waits on the other side are violated taboos the likes of which no commercial American screen has ever witnessed. In one scene, Milos decapitates an "actress" during sex, and as blood spurts from her neck, he keeps thrusting.
Beyond shock value, however, the film has serious and consequential things to say about the nature of pornography, and its formulation of people as commodities. This is no Hostel or The Human Centipede, both relatively shallow forays into "torture porn." A Serbian Film is not disgusting in a flippant or sensationalistic manner, and it does not aspire to be a gross-out experience deriving oohs and ahhs of campy outrage or titters of disgusted laughter.