Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
July 2013

Berberian Sound Studio

'There is no reason for escape'

'Berberian Sound Studio' may be an empty exercise, but as empty exercises go, it's a doozy

Berberian Sound Studio
IFC Midnight
Director: Peter Strickland
Screenplay: Peter Strickland
Starring: Toby Jones, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Susanna Cappellaro, Cosimo Fusco and Antonio Mancino
Not rated / 1 hour, 32 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)

Berberian Sound Studio is an exceptionally well-crafted film that thinks it has a lot more up its sleeve than it actually does. The experience of watching it is invigorating - until, that is, it comes to the point of revealing itself, and we realize that writer/director Peter Strickland only has the most obvious idea in mind. It's a deceptively literal direction to take the film's material, only it mistakes itself for abstractness.

When I first saw the film last year, it was enthusiastically introduced as a "David Lynch-like fever dream of a movie." I agree with that assessment, with the caveat that I often have the same problem with Lynch's films as I do with this one. While his work is described as dreamlike and enigmatic, I often find his approach to be mechanical, literal-minded and even predictable.

I wouldn't blame the last 20 minutes of Berberian for being predictable so much as unimaginative. What occurs is, within its surrealistic framework, the thing that makes the most logical, rational sense. Of course this would be the end game. Not only that but - without getting into spoiler territory - it's a development that's embedded in the fabric of the film already. Yet instead of allowing it to remain unspoken, Strickland treats it like it's some big twist.

Having said that, it's only as disappointing as it is because the prior build-up is so incredibly effective. If nothing else, Strickland has clearly done his homework. The film is both an homage to, and sardonic, meta refashioning of, Italian giallo films primarily from the 1970s, and on one level, a familiarity with the genre is necessary to appreciate some of the humor. (And even as someone familiar with many of the movies being referenced, I'm sure there are plenty I missed as well.)

Fittingly, Berberian is about the making of a giallo film, and one particular foley artist brought in to assist on the project. Strickland wastes no time establishing a profound sense of alienation for his main character, Gilderoy (Toby Jones) - alienation bordering on outright hostility. He's just arrived at a movie studio in Italy, and he seems uncertain why he even agreed to come in the first place. He's made his name as a sound man for nature documentaries in England, but upon specific request, he was called on to lend a hand to a horror film, which he's never done. Not only is he unfamiliar with the genre, he's distinctly uncomfortable with the violence of it. When the producer brings him in on his first day to show him the dailies, he can barely look.

The experience turns into Gilderoy's very own Kafkaesque nightmare. He's in a foreign place and doesn't speak the language. He doesn't understand the movie he's been hired to work on. He's been promised he'll be comped for his flight to Italy - not to mention paid for his work on the film - but his requests keep getting passed around without resolution. A phone call to one department gets transferred to another. Paperwork is filed and misplaced. The studio's secretary glares at him with hot contempt whenever he timidly stops by with a request.

To add to that, in my favorite recurring joke, the film's director, Santini (Antonio Mancino), never seems to be around. And when he finally does show up, he spends five minutes explaining how much of a genius he is, then lets everyone else handle the sound design while he goes out drinking and whoring. Gilderoy tries to speak to him about the project but can hardly get a word in.

Purely as an exercise in mood and dread, Berberian Sound Studio is outstanding, especially since so much - that is, practically everything - is unspoken. (At least for the first hour or so.) There's a crippling sense of discomfort in every scene. The tension would be overwhelming if it weren't so brilliantly funny at the same time. Of course, it's not funny to Gilderoy in the slightest, and Jones' portrayal of world-weary frustration and psychological exhaustion is pitch-perfect.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the excellent sound design - kudos to, among others, foley artist Heikki Kossi and foley recordist Miia Nevalainen - which for obvious reasons carries a heavy load. (Gilderoy's constant experimentation with different fruits and vegetables to slice, dice and smash in order to find just the right stabbing sound makes for some fantastic geek cinema.)

But the film makes a critical mistake in trying to resolve itself, either in the conclusion it comes to, or in the decision to come to a narrative conclusion in the first place. There's such a sense of abstract mystery to the film that an attempt to break that mood with any kind of answer or resolution - however surreal it may think it is - is a high-risk proposition. As it turns out, Strickland can't pull it off, arriving at only the most obvious of conclusions. The worst thing to find out about a mystery - especially an abstract one - is that there's nothing there except what was already apparent on the surface. Better for it to have remained a mystery.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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