Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
September 19, 2012 1 Comment
Invited to the Berberian Sound Studio in the 1970s to oversee the sound-design on Italian picture The Equestrian Vortex, bashful Brit Gilderoy (Toby Jones) — a documentary-maker from Dorking who usually works from his garden shed — is surprised to find himself garrotting carrots in the name of definitely-not-horror giallo. Out of his comfort zone and on the wrong side of the language barrier, he immerses himself in his work while desperately trying to reclaim the expenses from his journey over. As a number of setbacks delay post-production, not least as a result of the director’s (Antonio Mancino) mistreatment of his jobbing scream queens, Gilderoy begins to lose his grasp on reality as fact becomes stranger than fiction.
If LAIKA’s ParaNorman is a celebration of schlocky horror, then Berberian Sound Studio is something of an apology. In vilifying — and satirising — the Italian filmmakers (who themselves balk at being affiliated with the genre, instead insisting that they are making self-important giallo films), deconstructing production in a deluge of antiquated equipment and the fetishisation of the filmmaking process, and pointedly refusing to deliver the promised thrills of its premise, Peter Strickland and his team shun the preposterously titled exploitation flick, with its witches and goblins, in favour of a psychological meta-drama laced with ambiguities (why, for example, was he hired in the first place?) and obscure cinefilia (you may want to swat up on Dario Argento).
Berberian Sound Studio is undoubtedly a well-put-together film, however, and there is some fun to be had with the splattertastic sound effects and over-the-top line readings. Naturally, for a film about a sound-mixer, it is a veritable feast for the ears, particularly as Gilderoy and his team of foley artists lay waste to a spread of garden vegetables in an attempt to score the unseen gore. It is this technical proficiency that has most likely drawn such glowing reviews from critics, as Berberian Sound Studio is rich with both references and reverence. Jones approaches the role with an understated relish which is both accomplished and assured, if rarely sympathetic. With everything that has been read into it, however, it is perhaps also a little overrated — not even Jones can sell such a transformation in so little time (92 minutes, to be exact).
Complex or confused, Berberian Sound Studio is a enigma positively begging to be cracked, but for which there is most likely no answer. Rife with imagery and intrigue, it rarely seems to amount to anything at all. There are few shocks, little explanation and almost no resolution, just a taste of unease, a glimpse of madness and the slightest whiff of paranoid conspiracy. The premise certainly has potential, and there is a certain sense of eeriness that pervades throughout — maintained by recurring motifs (a persistent daddy longlegs) and repetitive shots of decaying vegetable matter — along with some effective black humour, but it never develops into anything more tangible or fulfilling. It’s a film to be appreciated, rather than enjoyed.
While being hailed a masterpiece in certain critical quarters, Berberian Sound Studio is an occasionally inspired and more often than not frustrating cinematic experience. An astute, if slight, character study that delivers no definitive answers, the film will change the way you look at cabages even if it has little impact on your perceptions of the horror genre itself. The Equestrian Vortex, on the other hand; now there’s a movie.