Stefan Arsenijević: Love and Other Crimes (Ljubav i drugi zločini, 2008)

reviewed by Christina Stojanova © 2009

Indeed, the post-Yugoslav Serbian cinema is slowly coming back to life. Maybe not quite there yet, but its sporadic successes are more than impatiently (and sometimes prematurely) hailed by the specialist press, which seems to be the case of the Serbian-German co-production Love and Other Crimes ( Ljubav i drugi zločini/ Liebe und andere Verbrechen), presented in the Panorama section at the Berlin Film Festival in 2008.

love and other crimesIt is the feature-length debut of one of the hopefuls of the New Serbian Cinema, Stefan Arsenijević (b. 1977) (whose highly awarded short drama (A)Torsion [(A) Torzija, 2002, Slovenia] got an Oscar nomination in 2004), and therefore yet another reason to be handled with care by well-wishers. Love and Other Crimes  is also very professionally made, flaunting well-structured narrative, most of the time excellently acted as well as superbly visualized (thanks to the elegant set design of Volker Schaefer and the laudable camera work of Simon Tansek). Those undeniable qualities however could not relieve one of the nagging feeling of something déjà vu in films by young filmmakers—that is, work very well done but lacking in conviction and original observations (and, shall I say it, inspiration…)—which is extremely important for a film populated mostly by eccentric personages.

The film follows Anica (Anica Dobra, a star of the New Serbian Cinema) on her very last day in wintry Belgrade before emigrating somewhere westward, in her taking long-standing revenge and last good-byes, before robbing her lover Milutin’s safe and leaving the country for good…The magnetic centre of the film however is Stanislav, played by the gorgeous charmer Vuk Kostić, groomed as the (usually doomed) “positive” hero of the New Serbian Cinema, as witnessed by his roles in Srdan Golubović’s Absolute Hundred (Absolutnih Sto ,2001) and The Trap (Klopka, 2007), and Emir Kusturica’s Life is a Miracle (Život je čudo, 2004), to name but a few.

love and other crimesStanislav is the right-hand man of Milutin (Fedja Stojanović), an aging small time thug locked in a deadly turf war with yet another middle-aged, overweight small-time thug, Radovan (Josif Tatić). In addition to being a loyal lieutenant to his boss, Stanislav is also a loving son of his slightly-deranged mother, a former pop diva (Milena Dravić), who does everything in his power to sustain her illusion that she is still adored by the public by paying a hefty amount to a neighbourhood restaurant owner to let her sing there at night. Evidently, the money helps somehow dampen the negative effect her performances have on the restaurant’s sparse clientele. Stanislav is also the only person able to help Milutin’s neurotic daughter Ivana, who is addicted to oranges (a recurring visual leitmotif of unattainable harmony) and suicidal walks to the top of the high-rise apartment building, where he joins her in singing her favourite old Spanish hit Bésame Mucho (the musical leitmotif of the film, yet another symbol of wistful longing). As if this is not enough, Stanislav also happens to be in love with Anica, and decides to open his heart to her on that very last day. Within his busy schedule, Stanislav somehow manages to squeeze a visit on Milutin’s behalf to his old flame, a middle aged woman living on her own; in planting the roses from Milutin’s bouquet in the snow of her front garden; and in engaging in a soulful talk on behalf of his penitent boss, who is (of course) fatally sick and asking for a belated forgiveness as part of his own farewell agenda. Obviously, such a Christ-like figure is not meant to live happily ever after and, after gently declining Anica’s offer to leave with her and begin a new life together, he is treacherously killed by one of Radovan’s young henchman. And while Anica’s plane roars above and she is staring at the empty chair next to her, he is seen from a bird’s view dying on the ground in a pool of blood, strongly remindful – visually as well as conceptually—of yet another death of a martyr, that of Dragan (Ljubiša Samardžić) in Goran Paskaljević’s 1987 Guardian angel (Andjeo Čuvar).

Even this sketchy review of the film’s crowded events betrays the common desire of first time directors to say as much as possible in their first film. Yet both narrative and characters appear epigone and contrived, probably (and paradoxically!) due mostly to their meticulously professional rendition, which destroys any and all vestiges of poetic spontaneity. If left alone, such a spontaneity—or what Boyd van Hoeij has generously defined as “magic realism”—would have been a possible way to go about this otherwise skilful exercise in contemporary art-house melodrama (as opposed to the Latin American soap operas played on a background TV screen in most of the episodes). Certainly when judged vis-à-vis the prolonged period of crisis, plaguing not only the new Serbian, but also the cinemas of Poland and Bulgaria (to name but a couple of post-Communist national cinemas, struggling to come to grips with the new realities before and behind the camera for nearly two decades now), the film is deserving the mostly positive feedback it got after its debut at the Berlin Film Festival. But judged against the strong original works of the young Czech cinema from the 1990s and early 2000 with their tongue-in-cheek explorations into the absurdities of the contemporary Czech society, and especially vis-à-vis the ingenious, hyperrealist socio-psychological observations of the young Romanian cinema of today, its shortcomings become glaringly obvious.

love and other crimesLove and Other Crimes is a quintessential example of what has been defined by David Bordwell as a “new tradition of bleak realism” in Eastern European cinema and by others as (neo) naturalism and, not without an irony—as “Eastern European miserabilism” (see Stojanova). Affecting mostly the film’s bleak mise-en-scène—dilapidated pre-fab, graffiti-covered high-rises and unwelcoming urban landscapes—and its camera work— shot either at night or under heavily overcast winter skies—the aesthetics of “miserabilism” actually puts the accent on bleak rather than on realism. And substitutes the believable chain of cause and effect, the main staple of all types of cinematic realism, with a cleverly designed episodic structure, sustained by melodramatic coincidences and overloaded with doom and gloom.

The macabre background throws in high relief a number of equally miserable schematic characters, whose weirdness might have been intriguing if used sparingly or spread over two or three separate films. When crammed into one single film, however, the confused sentimentality of the middle-aged Mafioso, his illicit but good-hearted mistress, and his closest ally as her wannabe lover becomes ineffective, sometimes generating uncontained ironic and even parodic effect. This becomes especially confusing in light of the film’s self-conscious, and somewhat artificial references to the classics of Yugoslav-Serbian cinema, whose inter-textual hints unfortunately remain obscure for the uninitiated viewer. For example, the film follows tightly Anica’s last day itinerary through a series of episodes. Their titles, or more specifically “morning” and “noon,” evoke Purisa Djordjevic’s renditions of the founding Yugoslav myths—the anti-fascist resistance and the ensuing break with the USSR—succinctly called Morning (Jutro 1967), Noon (Podne 1968)—and could be therefore considered as a kind of tribute to the elegant visual poetry of the recently rediscovered and honoured Djordjević. But while this reference might be qualified as superficial—and the visual quote from Guardian Angel as accidental—the casting of Milena Dravić, the long-lasting diva of Yugoslav and now of Serbian cinema (and the star of Morning) in the role of the slightly senile Slanislav’s mother is definitively purposeful. It is a parody of another odd-ball singer mom—that of Miloš (also played by Vuk Kostic) in Emir Kusturica’s Fellini-esque romantic musical tragic-comedy Life is a Miracle—and thus the surest sign that the inter-textual references and allusions in Love and Other Crimes are far from coincidental.

love and other crimesAnd yet this fairly confused self-referentiality is refreshing as it keeps the film from sinking completely into the mire of masochistic exhibitionism—another typical feature of Eastern European “miserabilism”—implying that the ubiquitous misfortune unfurling on screen is caused by metaphysical forces of evil, operating outside the characters and their free will (and, as it were, outside of the film universe itself), thus turning one and all, heroes and villains alike, into perennial victims. Fortunately, the unresolved genre confusion of Love and Other Crimes—is the film tragedy or a farce? Or both? Drama or parody? Are we supposed to laugh or cry?—diffuses to a certain extent the most intense “miserabilist” implications. Unfortunately however, Arsenijević fails to fully harness the possibilities of post-modern intertextuality, genre collage and ironic distanciation, and steer away from the habitual miserabilist determinism to which he ultimately reverts by reducing his characters to passive victims of circumstance, stripped of any moral and rational means to preserve their eponymous love as the only means of salvation amidst this “sea of trouble.”

Thus instead of “purging us of our emotions and reconciling us to our universal human lot’ (as Aristotle would have it), the grand soap-operatic finale—total emasculation through death, fatal disease, emigration—solicits uncritical teary response. And thereby significantly undermines the artistic potential of his otherwise professionally promising debut.

Christina Stojanova, University of Regina, Canada

Works Cited

Aristotle, Poetics, trans. S.H. Butcher, Hill & Wang, 1961.

Bordwell, David “Tango Marathon”, 22 October 2006.

Hoeij, Boyd van, “Ljubav i drugi zlocini (Love and Other Crimes) (Berlin 2008)”,, 13 February 2008.

Stojanova, Christina, “A Gaze From Hell: Eastern European Horror Cinema Revisitedin European Nightmares, P. Allmer, D. Huxley and E. Brick (eds), London: Wallflower, forthcoming

Love and Other Crimes, Serbia, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, 2008
Color, 105 min.
Director: Stefan Arsenijević
Script: S. Arsenijević, B. Vuletić, S. Koljević
Director of Photography: S. Tansek
Music: Naked Lunch
Production Design: V. Schaefer
Sound: E. Gobel, A. Hildebrandt
Cast: A. Dobra, V. Kostić, F. Stojanović, M. Dravić, H. Schwamborn, J. Tatić
Production: An Art & Popcorn (Serbia); Coin Film and KGP, Studio Arkadena (Germany)

Stefan Arsenijević: Love and Other Crimes (Ljubav i drugi zločini, 2008)

reviewed by Christina Stojanova © 2009