Review - Berberian Sound Studio
31 Aug 2012
Tony Jones impresses in this sound obsessed chillerA sheltered sound engineer gets in over his head when he takes on a job on an explicit Italian horror movie.Berberian Sound Studio is a strange movie. That’s an easy sentence to type and even easier to read but it doesn’t really capture the eccentricity of writer/director Peter Strickland’s sophomore effort.
Bizarre might be a better word, uncanny even better – a evocative word that helps to get across the carefully crafted mood which permeates every frame, before more and more prevalent as the film progresses.
It also has to be said, right from the top, that many people will find this experiment in atmosphere and opaque storytelling utterly frustrating while others will consider it a masterpiece of modern, semi horror cinema.
I fall somewhere between the two camps. The opening hour is an engaging affair, drawing us into the world of 70s era cinema with a delightfully tangible glimpse at the sound making process in an analogue age. I’m fascinated by the foley process, whereby movie sounds are created by real life objects on a sound stage. And if that interests you at all, there’s much to like in revelling in reams of tape, controls rooms full of switches and the sounds of murder and mayhem unleashed by the decimation of otherwise innocent fruit.
It must also be said that we the audience never get to see more than the lurid title sequence of the film our hero is working on – titled The Equestrian Vortex. Instead, we’re merely introduced to the scenes of depravity on screen via stage directions from the script and the increasingly horrified expressions of the distraught Gilderoy.
Our lead here is British actor Toby Jones, a magnificent character actor probably best known for his turn as Capote in Infamous in 2006. And he’s fantastic as the perfectly named Guilderoy – a retiring chap, fascinated by the craftsmanship of his art and previously engaged on pastoral documentaries about rural England.
Guilderoy’s journey is impeccably wrought – he’s at sea from the start in a haze of indecipherable Italian and director Strickland edits scenes to run together from one day and location to the next, making us feel his dislocation. The sinister tones creep in very subtly, in letters from his mother and – perhaps most powerfully – a series of tapes he has of sounds from home which are gradually overwritten by the screams, shrieks and sickening squelches of the soundtrack.
There is a lot of screaming in Berberian Sound Studio, as a flurry of actresses try to get the perfect tone to satisfy the demands of the increasingly demanding director Santini (Antonio Mancino). Repeated at length and mixed with the sounds of sexual assault and mutilation alongside the hypnotic editing, the film sets out to unsettle the audience in unique and effective ways, mirrored in the declining good spirits of the lead.
The final act of Berberian Sound Studio takes the narrative to its logical conclusion, with an unhinged Guilderoy trying desperately to maintain the fragile divide between himself and his work. Strickland pulls out all the complexly woven stops to bring this to life on screen, expertly using a dubbed audio and repetitions of scenes, as well as a startling moment of total silence, but it was all a bit much for me. As a subjective moment of utter mental disarray, it’s an interesting experiment but it’s also likely to further divide audiences.Berberian Sound Studio is a consistently impressive film on a technical level, with a wonderful 70s period aesthetic, an engaging look behind the analogue movie veil and a stunning performance from Toby Jones. But the final act is lacking even a token level of clarity, leaving me bruised and battered but also a little bored by the experience.