If you were to whisper words of reproof into the ear of Serbian director Uros Stojanovic, they would be: ‘Less sex, more hearse.’ His film, Tears for Sale, is darkly delightful - a fairy tale for grown-ups, lit by a constellation of candles, which mostly adheres to the Gothic sensibilities of Stojanovic’s wayward imagination. Except for the extended sex scene - which takes places in a hearse - but looks like it was filmed by someone else entirely; someone whose sensibilities are more aligned with rubbish soft porn than the witty, off-kilter work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (of Amelie fame) or Guy Maddin (Careful, The Saddest Music in the World).
Set in an isolated Serbian village at the end of WW1, Tears for Sale tells the story of two sisters - Ognjenka, with a blonde rope of Rapunzel hair, and her dark-locked, tempestuous sister Mala Boginja, who has a penchant for bathing in the cursed pool formed by her great-grandmother’s tears of grief. The siblings are professional mourners, paid to wail at funerals, and there’s a lot to cry about. Ravaged by war, the male population’s been decimated. The women are left on their own, bereft of male company, denied the chance of children and made madly melancholy by the intoxicating spider brandy that conjures visions of their dead loved ones, who re-appear with decomposing grace from behind the splintered bar mirror.
There is one man left on the mountain, decrepit Grandpa Bisa, a dead ringer for Herman Munster, but Ognjenka unfortunately kills him by the power of her screams, and to escape death the sisters must find a fresh man to replace him. If they fail, they will be cursed, and their granny’s dead spirit, newly awakened by the crow-head-dressed witch, will never rest.
The duo take the road, followed by a host of screeching CGI bats, and begin their quest, leaving behind their beautifully realised village with its mined vineyard, flickering shadows and pool of tears, for an adventure in the modern world, bright with sunshine and flapper hats.
The sisters met Arsa, a dissolute dandy and self-styled King of the Charleston and his cohort, Dragoljub, The Man of Steel, both blithely cast as sexual stereotypes by the ever-mischievous Stojanovic. The sisters, separately smitten - Ognjenka with the Man of Steel, Mala Boginja with the King of Charleston - decide not to take their conquests back to the village. Ognjenka heads towards Belgrade with the Man of Steel (who dreams of plummeting off a high-rise building unharmed), while Mala Boginja highjacks a hearse and embarks on that very regrettable sex scene. But no one can escape their destiny in Tears for Sale; the sisters and their lovers are inextricable drawn back to their Grimm home, with tragic consequences for all concerned.
It’s a tale told in broad emotional strokes, with characters that verge on the cartoonish, but there is a genuine poignancy to the visually gorgeous Tears for Sale - the smashed mirrors, the bloodied feet ripped apart by broken drinking glasses in a masochistic tango, the vine-twisted hair-band adorning the latest women to meet her fate in the deadly vineyard suggest the devastating consequences of conflict - loss, sadness, a fatalistic bravado. But none of that excuses the sex and death scene.