Berberian Sound Studio. 2013. Directed & Written by Peter Strickland.
Starring Toby Jones, Antonio Mancino, Guido Adorni, Cosimo Fusco, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Eugenia Caruso, Susanna Cappellaro, Lara Parmiani, Chiara D’Anna, Jozef Cseres, & Pal Toth. UK Film Council/Film4/Warp X/ITV Yorkshire.
Rated 14A. 92 minutes.
Peter Strickland is a director and writer filled with ingenuity. His films are odd, striking, intense. Only recently did I get the chance to view Katalin Varga, his first feature debut. I’d heard of it for a couple years, then was finally able to get hold of a copy. It is a tensely written ride into the darkness of grief; a low budget examination of what the past can do to mangle the present of a wounded person. Recently he directed and wrote an all-female film titled The Duke of Burgundy; I’ve put it to the Bechdel Test, it passed with flying colours.
Although before that Strickland moved on to this film, Berberian Sound Studio, a spectacular little movie that’s equal parts creepy and mesmerising. Each one of his directorial efforts looks different. Yet they’re all visually eye-catching, marked by a certain flair. This film calls to mind, obviously and deliberately, the giallo films of Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Antonio Margheriti, Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Martino, even some of the works of Lucio Fulci, among others. The film within a film itself is also a giallo. Therefore, the imagery and the sound design of Strickland’s work mimics those which came before, and creates a hypnotic sort of atmosphere. The perspective of the main characters becomes our perspective, as is the case in all good psychological pieces. Whereas the plot is slow burning, Strickland keeps the pace up by making things feel thrilling. Such a psychologically based piece of work can either go hard for drama, or turn itself towards being an outright thriller. Berberian Sound Studio finds a way to straddle the line, dosing us with lots of head-tripping atmosphere from imagery to sound, and further making the latter part of the plot just as exciting as it is strange. This could have become a mess. At times it feels incredibly energetic in a way that doesn’t help, but it does. Give it time. Once the finale rolls around all that madness comes to serve as an overall metaphor for the way we make and engage in horror movies, all through the perspective of a man actually working on one. The metafiction of Strickland’s writing increases the surreal feeling of the story, as well as allows us a look inside ourselves as purveyors and fans of the genre alike.
Really dig the look at sound engineering for film, as well as a nice view into the world of the Foley artist, the ones who create that vivid world of sound behind the visuals of a film. All of this is unusual, simply due to the fact this is a view into the world of movies that we’ve rarely gotten over the years. Other than documentaries or featurettes on the Special Features of DVDs and Blu ray discs, you won’t see the Foley work of these sound wizards explored much through fictional stories. Outside of Blow Out, there are barely any movies I can think of that even touch the world of the sound effects artists and engineers. Giving us insight into the film industry is a fun way to make things even more metafictional than just the film-within-a-film aspect; we actually watch the Foley artists ripping, stabbing, smashing, punching fruits and vegetables and all kinds of objects in order to get the right sounds for the scenes. So right off the bat Strickland gives us something unique, a world that’s rarely ever understood by the general viewers who go to see movies (those of us who love film to death are already lovingly aware of the work that goes on behind-the-scenes to make cinema into what it is). Whether this succeeds in doing anything interesting for the movie as a whole, that is up to the viewer. Personally, there’s enough to at least be intriguing in that way that it’s a foreign job to most, and something that’s fun to watch. I’m still not sure if the pay off to the entire story is worth the journey. I do know the plot can sustain an audience’s interest with the story and its characters alone.
The psychological angle of the screenplay is what gives us something different than the thriller elements of a movie like Blow Out, for instance. That was much more a full-blooded thriller. Strickland’s film is further in the realm of the psychological, the psychedelic, the full-on weird. And that’s just fine. The character of Gilderoy (Toby Jones) finds himself falling through the cracks of reality and fiction, which is precipitated by the headlong dive into sound work – creating these fake sounds for real actions onscreen, his own reality begins to slip away. Moreover, Gilderoy is squeamish, he didn’t expect to be doing a violent horror film, one calling for so many nasty sound effects. So his morality is tested, questioning our own as the viewer and whether watching this type of stuff is also doing some sort of damage, even at the most basic level. Or perhaps it’s a question of whether these types of films, the down and dirty horror, are truly only meant for some people. Regardless of what the main theme or question at hand is, Gilderoy’s psychological state is affected by this division in reality he faces whilst working on the gruesome sounds of the giallo film for which he’s been hired. And the further he gets into the film’s production the worse off his sanity becomes.
That brings me to Toby Jones. He is a fine, talented actor whose star has only begun to shine really bright in the past so many years. He’s been in all kinds of movies, though so many moviegoers probably wouldn’t recognise him in some of those roles. This is a performance of his that I love dearly. Jones has the typical sheepishness of some other characters he’s played. But he is more tortured than ever, gradually tumbling into another level of reality while trying to do his job, while the job only makes things worse. It’s a solid character and one that Jones latches onto. He makes us feel that this is a real man going through a genuine psychological break, away from home and feeling lonely, wanting to do the job he loves but finding it increasingly difficult with the psychological strain bearing down on him.
Originally, I’d put this down as mediocre. Upon watching it the first time the whole thing didn’t catch me. Now, seeing Berberian Sound Studio for a second time, I feel this is much better than what I’d remembered. What I once found sloppy and a weak attempt at homage for the giallo films of the 1960s and 1970s. It’s actually a wonderful examination of the exploitation inherent in those movies, writer-director Peter Strickland opts to examine our relationship with horror and its often nasty imagery (and in this case, sound) and he tries to make us confront what sort of people we are when engaging in the act of viewing (or making) horror. Does it affect us? Is it really as innocent as we like to assume? I don’t believe horror affects us the way conservative minds might like to think. However, I do like exploring these types of ideas, and fictional stories are a way for us as a society to indulge those thoughts. Like good literature, film helps us understand and comprehend life, ourselves. This movie takes a sincere and eerie look at the effect movies can have on those making them, and in turn the audience that later watches them. Berberian Sound Studio is ripe with all kinds of beauty, darkness, excitement, and will bring you back to all those old giallo movies of the masters from decades prior. Love this movie and can’t believe I once thought this wasn’t any good. Just goes to show you, time is the measure of all things.