Posts Tagged ‘Peter Strickland’

It is surely very heartening to see that, even in times as dark as the present, society still offers a chance for success to people who are clearly a little bit weird (especially heartening for those of us who are weird ourselves). Currently I am thinking of Peter Strickland, whom I may be jumping to conclusions about. Never having met the gentleman, I may be taking liberties by labelling him as weird, but the two films of his that I’ve seen have both been, well, weird. Weird in a very interesting and entertaining way, I hasten to add. But they’re still weird.

I saw Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio towards the end of 2012 and came out feeling rather well-disposed towards it (certainly more so than the gentleman who stood up at the end of the screening and shouted ‘Utter rubbish!’ to no-one in particular). His follow-up, The Duke of Burgundy, didn’t trouble the cinemas around here so far as I can recall, but his latest film did – albeit not in a very conspicuous way. Another victim of the great Disney squeeze, one might suggest.

The new movie is In Fabric, which is a fairly odd title and thus rather undersells the film, which is extremely eccentric, to say the least. The setting is the UK in what looks like the late 1970s or possibly early 80s (one character has a misleadingly contemporary hairstyle, but it soon becomes obvious that email and mobile phones don’t exist yet). Marianne Jean-Baptiste plays Sheila, a recently-separated bank clerk with a teenage son who is a bit thrown to discover that her ex-husband has already found himself a new girlfriend. As an odd form of passive-aggressive retaliation, she decides to join a lonely hearts dating service, but only after refreshing her look a bit. And so she goes out and buys a new dress.

This proves to be a choice of questionable merit, as the department store she visits is a rather unusual one which appears to be run by witches, or possibly devil-worshippers. Even the sales assistants are rather peculiar, such as the one she encounters (an uproarious turn from Fatma Mohamed). However, the ‘artery red’ dress she ends up buying is something else again, as it is apparently cursed and possessed of a malevolent sentience, and is determined to do her ill. This initially just takes the form of giving her a nasty rash and destroying her washing machine (the dress doesn’t like being machine-washed), but soon its activities become absolutely murderous…

There is a camp ridiculousness to the premise of In Fabric which clearly owes a debt to some of the sillier horror movie premises of years gone by – I’m thinking of the homicidal vine from Dr Terror’s House of Horrors or the man-eating furniture in Death Bed – although, come to think of it, Stephen King did a book about a haunted car and no-one called that silly. Certainly this resonance doesn’t seem to be a matter of chance, for the film also has a quasi-portmanteau structure which inevitably recalls Dr Terror and the various other portmanteau horrors of decades ago.

It isn’t quite as simple as this film simply being a spoof of that particular genre, though. Strickland’s fondness for Italian giallo horror was evident in Berbarian Sound Studio and this film has that same kind of visual artfulness and richness. The combination of arty continental horror stylings and everyday naturalism which  makes In Fabric so distinctive is almost enough to make one suggest that this is what it would look like if Dario Argento and Mike Leigh ever worked together on a project (or if such a project were lovingly pastiched by the League of Gentlemen).

The most impressive thing about In Fabric is the way in which it takes such a richly over-the-top premise, and such a seemingly-incongruous set of clashing influences, and still manages to be a coherent and cohesive movie rather than a mess of clashing styles and tones. This, it seems to me, is the sign of a very fine film-maker – the ability to turn a film on a dime and shift between tones so effortlessly is exceptionally difficult. And there are lots of different things going on here. As I said, this isn’t exactly a horror parody – it is knowing and tongue-in-cheek, and the audience is expected to recognise this, but at the same time it is a genuine horror film, intent on unnerving and rattling its audience. It is attempting to be weird and creepy rather than actually scary, and there are some extremely odd and rather graphic sequences that certainly won’t be to everyone’s cup of tea.

And then Strickland will smoothly go into another encounter with the bizarre shopworker Miss Luckmoore and her preposterous turn of phrase (this is a woman who says ‘I have reached the dimension of regret’ when she means ‘I’m sorry’), or a scene where one of the characters is dragged in for a nightmarish encounter with Julian Barratt and Steve Oram’s useless managers, or even a genuinely moving scene filled with real pathos. It shouldn’t work; it certainly shouldn’t look as easy as Strickland manages to make it appear.

I shouldn’t neglect to say that this is a genuinely funny film, albeit often in a highly surreal way (at one point Barratt and Oram are reduced to a priapic stupor by someone describing washing-machine faults to them). You find yourself wondering if you’re actually supposed to be laughing at this or if you haven’t quite understood what kind of film you’re watching. In the end I did conclude that very little in this movie has been left to chance.

For all that it is an unusual and rather intoxicating concoction, I would still say In Fabric has the odd flaw – primarily that the opening segment of the film is stronger than the rest, which is unfortunate if nothing else. Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s performance is a bit more rounded than those of Leo Bill and Hayley Squires, who carry the later parts of the movie. I might even suggest that the portmanteau structure of the story isn’t signposted at all and is a bit wrong-footing when it manifests itself.

Nevertheless, this is a film made with obvious confidence and skill and a definite sense of visual style (the soundtrack, from the splendidly-named combo Cavern of Anti-Matter, only adds to the hypnotic effect). It is distinctive and highly unusual (and probably not very mainstream, to be perfectly honest), but also very funny and always interesting. I liked it very much.

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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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