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Posts Tagged ‘Berberian Sound Studio’

Describing the products of non-mainstream Western cinema as unusual and rare kinds of animal (as opposed to the comfortable domestic beasts we’re all rather more familiar with) is all very well – which is a relief, as I was doing so only last week – but it’s a metaphor more than usually ripe for abuse and potential confusion. Most obviously, personal bias and cultural stereotyping rear their ugly heads as soon as you get into this territory, and there’s the issue of quite how you describe something totally strange and unusual and generally off the wall without making it sound unattractive and unengaging. Yet this is exactly the kind of film under consideration when one talks about Peter Strickland’s utterly peculiar Berberian Sound Studio. Is this a horror movie, a drama, or a black comedy? I hesitate to offer an opinion except that it appears to have a little of all of them in it.

Toby Jones gives the kind of performance that actors are immortalised by as Gilderoy, a mild-mannered and somewhat rumpled English sound engineer, previously specialising in nature documentaries, who finds himself recruited by a company based in Italy. Here he is employed to work on the sound for The Equestrian Vortex, a lurid and ludicrous giallo horror movie of the kind that was very popular at the time when the film is set (the mid 1970s). A long way from home, and not really used to this kind of subject matter, Gilderoy finds himself having to contend with the film’s pretentious and oversexed director (Antonio Mancino) and tyrannical producer (Cosimo Fusco), to say nothing of having a lot of trouble getting his expenses reimbursed. The peculiar working atmosphere and corrosive personal relationships between his colleagues begin to have decidedly negative effects on Gilderoy’s own mental state…

The vaulting weirdness of Berberian Sound Studio begins with the first scene and continues throughout – the film is almost entirely set in the titular facilty, with a very small cast, and much of its dialogue is in Italian. It initially appears to be, on some level, a love letter to the mechanics of old school film production – especially on the sound side. There are lots of lengthy, loving shots of spools and sprockets and reels and projectors – all the backstage paraphernalia of a movie. The film-within-the-film itself is never shown, except for a brilliantly mocked-up title sequence, but we get a strong sense of what it’s about from the dialogue and scene descriptions we hear – ‘when a red hot poker is inserted into a woman’s vagina, it’s a serious moment,’ declares the producer, gravely.

One of the more peculiar achievements of Berberian Sound Studio is to have earned a 15 certificate seemingly almost entirely on the strength of its sound effects. These are usually performed on-camera, with Toby Jones and others doing unspeakable things to fruit and vegetables that leave them quite unsuitable for human consumption. The contrast between what you’re seeing on the screen and what it’s meant to be representing produces a weirdly evocative and actually quite unsettling effect.

Toby Jones has had a fairly high-profile couple of years but this is the kind of vehicle which character actors dream of – this is his Theatre of Blood or his Wicker Man (original version, obviously), in that he dominates the film and gives a quite astounding performance, subtle and yet utterly mesmerising. Even at the start of the film, Gilderoy is frankly a bit weird, but Jones keeps him sympathetic and fascinating to watch even when he’s surrounded by a gang of much more demonstrative and openly charismatic Italian characters, with their own set of personal dramas.

However, as the film goes on the plot about the on-set problems and troubled relationships increasingly dissolves as Strickland seems much more interested in totally dismantling the usual relationship between sound and image and then playing games with the bits. As the film starts off dark and then becomes increasingly visually shadowy, this too is unsettling and disconnecting – the audio-visual chaos is obviously meant to reflect the increasing collapse of Gilderoy’s rationality, but it’s achieved innovatively and surprisingly – scenes are replayed, dubbed into different languages and subtitled, extraordinary radiophonic sound effects are unleashed, certain scenes play out without any soundtrack whatsoever… conventional cinematic reality falls to bits completely, just as seems to be happening to Gilderoy’s mind.

It’s a remarkable, technically brilliant journey, and one of the most memorably different films I’ve seen all year. On the other hand, this kind of story doesn’t really lend itself to our old friend the three-act structure, and anyone expecting a conventional narrative complete with a normal sense of closure is going to come away confused and probably quite angry (much like the person behind me, who walked out at the end shouting ‘utter waste of time!’). This is a very, very unorthodox film, but clearly the product of a singular vision and made to the highest standards – I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it in the traditional sense, but I was captivated by it throughout. In its own way Berberian Sound Studio may be one of the films of the year.

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