Berberian Sound Studio Reviews
I don't mind weird or something that doesn't quite add up until the end, but when it's both those things and still doesn't have an explanation of some type, I get a bit annoyed!
An experienced British sound-engineer is hired to work on a low-budget Italian horror movie called "Equestrian Vortex". Throughout his work, he struggles with the language-barrier and constant exposure to horror movie images and finds himself drawn into a vortex all his own, as he begins to lose his grasp on reality.
The thing that strikes you most from this film when it opens is it's good sense of atmosphere. It possess an almost strange sepia tint, as if the proceedings have been desaturated. There's a permeating feeling dread and unease that courses through it as time, itself, seems to stroll by. Strickland is certainly in no rush to tell his story and he also abandons any conventional method in doing so; a good chunk of the dialogue is in Italian and there's a deliberate omission of subtitles. This may put some people off but it serves to create an understanding and affiliation with the loneliness and isolation of the protagonist, Gilderoy (played brilliantly by Toby Jones). Although deliberate, and an interesting method, I also found it somewhat frustrating. What's also very interesting is that the story takes shape in the sound that's provided for film's rather than the images. How many times have you ever seen a horror movie that relies solely on audio rather than visual? Cabbages are stabbed and plunged into water to provide the perfect accompanying sound of someone being stabbed or drowned. It's an interesting insight and the suggestion of horror is actually captured very well using this approach. When we do, eventually, see the images that have been getting dubbed, it throws the film into a completely new surrealistic direction that shares similarities with the mind-bending talents of David Lynch and his art imitating life theme of "Inland Empire" or "Mulholland Drive". Of course, thats where the similarity ends as Strickland doesn't have the ability to construct his story with any real meaning in the way that Lynch excels at. I'm no stranger to surreal cinema, in fact I love it but this leaned a little too far to self-indulgence for me.
Anyone familiar with the 'Giallo' horrors of Italian cinema during the 60's and 70's will, no doubt, take a lot more from this film than I did. That being said, there's no denying it's grasp on atmosphere and it's impressive ability to build tension. However, as our protagonist becomes increasingly withdrawn and descends in madness, we descend into obscurity without any real satisfying conclusion. For me, the film just ended. I was aware of it's nature and prepared for any subtext or symbolism that it might throw my way, but in the end, it didn't quite come together. I was hoping for a more satisfying conclusion.
It's certainly not to everyone's tastes. For some, it will bore; for others, it will confuse. However, if your open minded enough, it will draw you in. Basically, it's an art-house horror that can either be seen as pretentious clap trap or an astute homage. I find myself somewhere in between.
Like the other films I've listed, Berberian Sound Studio spends much of its time attempting to deconstruct the horror genre - in other words, to explain how a horror film is assembled, and to offer a mechanical or sociological explanation as to why we are scared by them. But while Peter Strickland's intentions may be similar to Joss Whedon in spirit, in practice they amount to something which is arguably more audacious. Strickland's intention is not just to show how a horror movie works, or send up an individual trope therein: he wants to show us how much of being scared lies in our imagination, as much in as the mechanics of cinema itself.
Berberian Sound Studio follows a timid sound engineer and Foley artist (a person who creates sound effects), who is hired by an enigmatic Italian director to provide the sound effects on his equally enigmatic film, The Equestrian Vortex. He doesn't like the engineer (called Gilderoy) referring to it as a horror film, and save for a brief glimpse of its opening credits, we never see the film on which Gilderoy is working. All we have to go on are the screams, the effects being created, and the technology which is being used to capture them.
The first thing to praise about the film is its extraordinary sound design. We're all familiar with how changes in sound can be used for easy scares, but you will struggle to find another film in recent memory whose sound is so effective in creating and sustaining unease. Strickland's choice of music is superb, including a series of synthesiser pieces which eerily resemble A Clockwork Orange. But the real score is the clicking and whirring of the projectors and tape machines, the flicking of switches and the scrape of record players, all of which are mixed to perfection to keep us constantly on edge.
It is fairly easy to view Berberian Sound Studio as the latest in a series of recent films which pay tribute to cinema itself. From this perspective Strickland is focussing his tribute on two different aspects. The first of those is low-budget horror, particularly the Italian giallo horrors of Dario Argento. The plot of the film-within-a-film incorporates elements of witchcraft and supposedly involves female protagonists being beautifully and brutally murdered. Both of these are hallmarks of Argento's classic works like Suspiria, Inferno and Terror at the Opera, though the film avoids dropping in any clumsy references, in order that its exact nature remains a secret.
This tribute to low-budget horror is conveyed primarily through the effects that Gilderoy creates. Whole sections of the film feature Tobey Jones smashing various fruits and vegetables to a pulp, repeatedly trying to replicate the sound of a head being smashed open, or a body hitting the ground after a long fall. Sometimes Strickland shows us his craft, to show the unglamorous nature of the horror business, but other times he refrains, and lets us picture the effect as it would appear in the film. We are simultaneously grossed out by the practical means of achieving the effect, and creeped out by its eventual purpose, a feeling made worse (or better) by how realistic the effects turn out to be.
The other object of Strickland's affections is that of analogue sound. In an interview with Mark Kermode for his 60th birthday, Steven Spielberg waxed lyrical about the benefits of editing and mixing with celluloid and analogue tapes, arguing that: "the films we love the most were made by this process. If it was good enough for [our forefathers], why isn't it still good enough for us?". Whatever your feelings on digital filmmaking, there's no denying that Strickland shares Spielberg's love. He takes something as seemingly dull as a spool of tape, and shoots it like he's looking at a flawless diamond. Even the shot of ruined tape scattered all over the control booth has a strange, chaotic beauty to it.
But it is in this second point of homage that Berberian Sound Studio reveals its darker centre. What appears on the surface to be just another affection-fest is in fact a darker, stranger and more brooding piece. If Martin Scorsese's Hugo is our generation's 8 1/2, focussing on the joy inherent in the creation of cinema, then Berberian Sound Studio is our Peeping Tom. It celebrates and revels in the dark mystique of celluloid, emphasising the ritualistic nature of filmmaking and the psychosis of the director. It characterises Gilderoy as a high priest behind an extremely powerful altar, in which every switch, cable, tape and microphone has a part to play, like the sacraments in some macabre religious ceremony.
The film is driven by the brilliant central performance of Tobey Jones. Drawing on his work as Percy Alleline in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Jones captures the essence of a man who is utterly out of his depth and may be losing his mind. Having learnt his craft on nature documentaries, Gilderoy is constantly intimidated by the subject matter he is working with day-in, day-out, and speaking next to no Italian he frequently feels like the world is against him. Jones chooses carefully when to repress his frustrations and when to bring him to the fore, and at times he is as genuinely disturbing as Carl Boehm was in Peeping Tom.
As Gilderoy grows seemingly more and more detached from the world around him, the film transforms from being merely uneasy into something truly terrifying. The more reasons we are given, however small, for doubting Gilderoy's version of events, the more we fear for him, his colleagues and by connection ourselves. We are implicated in his madness because we have seen so much about how it is come about, in the endless screaming and creation of effects. We start to entertain thoughts that Gilderoy will die, and that the whole scheme was some kind of Wicker Man¬-like plot to lure him here - a place where his worldview clashes with a darker, more primal force, and both are ultimately annihilated.
In Strickland's hands, Berberian Sound Studio takes on a deeply surreal quality until it becomes downright Lynchian. You could liken the film to Eraserhead, since both films feature troubled male protagonists and both are essentially built from the soundtrack upwards. You could equally describe it as a leaner, more disciplined version of Inland Empire, if we go along with the idea that the film-within-a-film is somehow cursed. But perhaps the closest comparison is with Mulholland Drive, exploring as it does the dark corruption of the film business, the destruction of innocence, and the way that dreams subtly shift into nightmares. There are visual reflections of this too, with the recurring flashing red lights and message of 'Silenzio' standing in for the blue lights at Lynch's Club Silencio.
Unfortunately, the flaw with Berberian Sound Studio is to be found in this Lynchian progression. It's not the case, as some have claimed, that embracing Lynch's style or imagery has become an excuse for the film not to make any sense. The problem is that the film's execution of Mulholland Drive's dream-reality shift isn't anything like as convincing or fulfilling. When Diane opens the blue box and falls through into the 'real' world, the resulting shifts make perfect sense and the ending gains greater meaning for it. Here when Gilderoy walks through the wardrobe, the film loses its own thread and we are left to wonder what the ending means without any clues, in dream logic or anything else.
Berberian Sound Studio is one of the very best films of the year which at its best rivals David Lynch for sheer and terrifying mesmerism. It falls at the final hurdle thanks to its clumsy ending, which keeps it as a great film rather than a perfect one. But this final stumble takes nothing away from everything that went before it, resulting in a deeply unnerving and unsettling work with Tobey Jones at the top of his game. It comes with the highest recommendations, and no apologies for any resulting nightmares.
The horror genre is one that can't be casually undertaken. Many film-makers think themselves somehow above the genre, thus we get patronizing failures like "Antichrist" and "Black Swan". (The credits of Von Trier's film list a "Horror film researcher" which says it all really. If you have no interest in a genre Lars, you have no business attempting it.) Like Jones' character here, they can't see past the blood. Thankfully Strickland can. His film doesn't even feature as much as a paper cut. He knows that real horror is about atmosphere and suggestion. Val Lewton would have hired him.
Like Kirk Douglas in "Two Weeks in Another Town", Jones (quickly becoming the British Philip Seymour Hoffman) finds himself in the madness of seventies Italy, supervising the dubbing of a film, here a horror film which seems to be a thinly veiled attack on the Catholic church. He's a master of his craft, obsessing over minute details such as the correct ripeness of a melon to mimic the sound of a head exploding. In one scene he entrances his Italian co-workers during a power outage by making a lightbulb sound like a UFO. (I recall an anecdote about Spielberg similarly entertaining his crew with a torch during a blackout on the set of "Jurassic Park".)
With his obsessive attention to reels of recorded sound, Jones recalls Gene Hackman in "The Conversation" or John Travolta in "Blow Out" but the cinematic character he's closest to is Edward Woodward's morally uptight police officer in "The Wicker Man". As the film progresses it appears he may have been lured to Italy for the same kind of reasons Woodward found himself on Summerisle. There are several nods to David Lynch, from the studio's flashing "Silenzio" sign to the film's final act which evokes the Black Lodge of "Twin Peaks", itself a homage to Italian horror-meister Mario Bava.
In "The Purple Rose of Cairo", Mia Farrow wanted to enter the cinema screen and escape from reality. Here the scenario is reversed. Jones wants to keep his distance but, like us film lovers, is ultimately consumed by the beckoning white canvas.
This artistic result was a "film which is out of view, and you only see the mechanics behind it" - well, lots of people liked it - while my opinion is that I could use my time wiser! I know that there is a reason why a British movie is happening in an Italian studio - British men always have issues with Italian Macho approach to life... and here, not very potent man, is somehow a hero at the end!
Of course, there is a support from the whole industry: movie was previewed at London FrightFest Film Festival in August 2012 and at the 2012 Edinburgh International Film Festival, where The Daily Telegraph described it as the "stand-out movie". Yes, it was a stand out - like a streaker on a cricket match - not always pleasant viewing! Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian has described the film as "seriously weird and seriously good" and said that it marks Strickland's emergence as "a key British film-maker of his generation". Sight & Sound film magazine listed the film at number 5 on its list of best films of 2012. The film tied with A Royal Affair as Mark Kermode's best film of the year. The film won awards at the 2012 British Independent Film Awards Best Director, Best Actor, Best Technical Achievement (Sound) and Best Achievement In Production. In 2013, the film obtained the Best (International) Film Award at BAFICI. Did you notice something(?): all awards are British!
I have to say - just an average piece with good acting and to a degree - impotent!
That being said it IS absolutely marvelous from a technical standpoint, and its elliptical storytelling at times feels like you're watching the engineering of a dream. And, know what, fuck it, "BBS" may be purportedly slow, but it's with a heart and purpose. Genre fans best get lost in it, because "BBS's" slow-burn deliberateness -- and its loopy, looping Broadcast score -- is gonna be stuck in your head like a wet match long after you've safely crouched in the distance, eyes shut and hands over your ears, wondering why the bomb didn't go off.