Tagged Fiction

Berberian Sound Studio Gets to the Raw Core of Our Relationship with Horror

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.
Drama/Horror/Thriller

★★★★
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

Bleeder Draws a Violent Line in the Sand Between Film and Reality

Bleeder. 1999. Directed & Written by Nicolas Winding Refn.
Starring Kim Bodnia, Mads Mikkelsen, Rikke Louise Andersson, Liv Corfixen, Levino Jensen, & Zlatko Buric. Kamikaze.
Not Rated. 98 minutes.
Crime/Drama

★★★★★
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People who frequent this site will now be sick of my love for Nicolas Winding Refn. He divides people. Nowadays, some of his supposed fans are really just fans of Drive. Others like his earlier work but find his latest stuff in the past 10 years a bit too much. Furthermore, there are others like myself who enjoy every last inch of film on which he’s left his mark. Not only that, I enjoy his writing alongside his choices and style as director. Not everything works every bit of the time. However, Refn always manages to intrigue me. He pulls at the seams of the brain and makes it unravel, no matter if we’re stuck in the gutters of Copenhagen, the cluttered video shops and bookstores, or whether he’s got you traipsing across the landscape of some foreign place on the way to who knows where – his mind is always working to try and fuck yours. In one way, or another.
Bleeder is in the earlier portion of his career, where the main focus of the stories he told were based in the streets of Copenhagen. First with Pusher, he explored a criminal, drug world. This film is set in a similarly lower class environment in semi-rundown flats and other locations, the characters each lower to middle class types. Above all else, Refn sticks with the gritty, in your face realism of his first feature. Here in his second feature there’s a closer, more personal look into the life of a family that’s falling apart, all due to the husband’s inability to express himself or seek out what he truly wants, instead opting to go along with the status quo – get married, have a kid – when it isn’t what he wants.
The results are tragic and violent.
And ultimately, blood begets more blood.
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The biggest, most evident part of Bleeder is how Leo (Kim Bodnia) is so obviously jealous of the single life. More importantly, his problems with the movies, the difference between reality and fiction are what bother him most. See, Lenny (Mads Mikkelsen) is a cinephile, much like myself. He spends a good deal of his time immersed in the world of various directors, auteurs and blockbusters and everything in between. At the same time, that also paints Lenny’s view on life a little unrealistically.
Or does it?
Compared to Leo and his fucked up life, the life he fucked up all on his own, the way Lenny approaches life is quite normal. Also, he looks at what Leo has and wants that while Leo is busy shitting all over it. Lenny’s a more reserved type, likely hoping a movie romance is going to fall into his lap, as well as maybe he’s a bit too reserved, a little anti social. But Leo is stuck in a life he’s not so sure he wants to live. His wife Louise (Rikke Louise Andersson) is pregnant, he doesn’t truly want a kid, then of course he winds up beating the hell out of her. So when he rags on Lenny for watching too many films and when he rages against a movie because it’s unrealistic, what’s really going on inside is that Leo is jealous.
He wants a different life, but won’t get one. Can’t now. So instead he decides to take control, unlike Lenny who he sees as aloof in the obsessive world of cinephilia. He buys a gun, he acts like a movie tough guy but in real life. However, in real life there are consequences. In the movies we see gangsters beat up on their girlfriends and nothing ever seems to come of it. They get off with everything, free to do as they please, to whomever they please. When Leo takes it upon himself to make his life into a real live motion picture, he also must face the consequences. Even better, the climactic moments of this story are wild and almost outrageous. Yet still they’re all too real. So real in fact that it’s almost nauseating.
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The gritty qualities of the film are paralleled in the ultimate nasty, defining moment that comes in the last twenty minutes. Added to that, Kim Bodnia – perhaps the world’s most underrated actor – gives us a stellar performance. There’s a scene where he comes to and find himself tied up, hanging from chains, and there’s this odd, moaning sound that emanates from him, louder and louder, longer and longer. It’s actually chilling. Even before that he does a fascinating job with a despicable character. You can see him cracking, gradually, then over the course of the film watch him drift into oblivion. There’s a good progression to the character and it’s only made better with Bodnia in the lead, doing a fine job like he did with Refn’s Pusher as Frank.
Similarly, Mads Mikkelsen is awesome as Lenny. He is one of those actors that has wide range. In some projects he plays creepy, scary characters. Here, he’s a timid and shy guy that has trouble reaching out to women, and instead of being creepy or inappropriate merely keeps to himself. So there’s a nice quietude in his character in juxtaposition with all the horrific realities of Leo’s situation. Watching Mikkelsen an Zlatko Buric together in the video shop is a treat, so different from their interactions in Pusher. They have good chemistry. But Mikkelsen really takes us into Lenny, and you can’t help rooting for him to finally push through to meet that girl he’s interested in.
Finally I cannot forget Levino Jensen playing the character of Louis, the violently racist brother to Louise. This guy is actually endearing in the early parts, even if you know he’s a bit of a hard ass. He just has this affectionate quality to him when with his sister particularly. Then there’s a switch, as Leo oversteps his boundaries and abuses Louise. Afterwards, we see Jensen break out in the character, making Louis into an intimidating person despite his stature. That’s the mark of a solid actor, when the physicality is second to the pure, intense emotion they can bring to a part. Jensen is such an actor, which I honestly didn’t expect. But he adds plenty to the film with his performance.
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As opposed to other works from Nicolas Winding Refn, Bleeder is a simple piece of cinema. That’s not to say it’s dumbed down. In fact, it is exactly the opposite. It is raw and to the point, it is brutish, bloody nearing the end and always compelling. This is a close view of violent men; not in the movies, but in real life. Whereas Lenny ends the film embracing a corporeal romance, something palpable and not only the world he loves in the movies, Leo winds up falling into a real life event and story which mirrors the best, bloodiest pieces of cinema out there. It’s perhaps this final hideous act of violence involving Louis and Leo that forces Lenny towards finally stepping into the world, outside the camera’s frame, and finding a life that doesn’t only involve the fictional space of film.
This is a great movie that does not get enough credit. It’s honest and open, while also having an almost surreal aspect in its more intense moments. Refn will always divide people, but I wil always find him interesting, even if I come across something eventually that I don’t like. For now, it’s all good, baby!