Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

The world of horror movies can be very alienating to the uninitiated. Unless you’re used to decapitation and blood-curdling screams, I suppose a horror flick might actually seem, um, scary. Even so, in the end a movie is just a movie; we can throw out our exorbitantly-priced popcorn and call it a day. But what must it be like for the uninitiated folks working behind the scenes on such a film? Peter Strickland explores this idea in Berberian Sound Studio, a film about a British sound editor whose been recruited to work on an Italian production. Unfortunately our hero failed to get all the details before traveling to Italy…

BerberianSoundStudioPosterGilderoy (Toby Jones) is an older gentleman; shy, but very skilled at his job. Usually, he works on sound-editing for educational documentaries and children’s programming. Seemingly out of the blue he is called upon by some Italian folks working on a film called The Equestrian Vortex. Assuming this is just another nature documentary, Gilderoy travels to Italy. Of course, he is stunned to discover the film is about as far from documentary as you can get! Instead of benignly educating its audience, The Equestrian Vortex is a cookie-cutter giallo film out to make them squirm!

Gilderoy attempts to convey his discomfort, but the members of the Italian production team are completely uninterested in hearing any of his complaints; they’re far too wrapped up in their own egos and drama to worry about a milquetoast Brit like Gilderoy. The poor fellow can’t even get anyone to reimburse him for his flight out to Italy; the receptionist out front is insufferably rude, and the folks inside the studio are pushy to say the least. Without much of a choice, Gilderoy is thrust into the world of horror filmmaking, and let’s just say the two weren’t exactly made for each-other. He becomes intimately familiar with all manner of fruit and vegetable; what lovely squashing sounds they make! Seems benign enough, but more unsettling are the guttural grunts and moans of “The Witch,” the screeching horror of “The Goblin” and of course, the incessant and ever-disappointing screams of actress after actress; all of which Gilderoy must record and mix with painstaking accuracy and attention.

The only comfort Gilderoy enjoys after a hard day’s work of screaming and fruit-crushing are letters from his Mum back home. She anxiously awaits his return so they together can enjoy the nest of baby chicks that have made their home on the front porch. He smiles to himself each night as he reads his mother’s letters, but there’s always a bit of dread behind that smile, because he knows tomorrow will be another difficult day with the Italians. The only other person who seems to sense his extreme discomfort is Silvia, one of the lead voice actresses in the film, and notably the only other non-Italian involved in the production. Silvia is the only one to treat Gilderoy kindly, and tells him the only way to get anywhere with “these people” is to demand the things you need.

Seemingly from a dream, Gilderoy takes Silvia’s advice and marches up to the receptionist desk to demand the BerberianSoundStudioSilenziomoney for his flight to Italy. Unfortunately, he is quickly shut down and loses his gumption, but even still, something has changed in Gilderoy. This new attitude, coupled with a tragic letter from Mum about the downfall of the chicks (‘it must have been the magpies’) is where the film really starts to get strange. From this point forward, We’re never quite sure what’s taking place on the screen; are we seeing inside Gilderoy’s head? Is he having a dream? Or is what we’ve seen prior a dream? We see scenes we have already seen, but with a different audio track; this time Gilderoy speaking fluent Italian. Instead of being removed from the action, he is integral to it – not only behind the scenes, but in The Equestrian Vortex itself. This is where that whole ‘blurring the lines between reality and fantasy’ comes in, and it’s a real head trip.

Berberian Sound Studio is a movie for movie nerds. It helps if you’re familiar with the trashy world of Italian 70’s giallo – there are definitely a lot of winks and nods that you just won’t get otherwise. But I think anyone with an interest in filmmaking (particularly sound-editing, natch) will find the film intriguing. What I liked most about it is that with all the suggestion of blood and violence, there’s absolutely none to be seen in the film. It is of course heard, and clearly the mere suggestion is what seems to drive our old boy Gilderoy mad.

In one sense, I saw the film as a comment on how the horror film can draw the innocent outsider into its fold; kind of like recruiting new talent into a shady cult. At first Gilderoy is unsure and resistant, but soon (perhaps due to the magpies and the realization that the world is full of horror, and he is already a part of it?) he seems to feel as if he’s belonged here all along. What better way to convey this than by replaying previous scenes with a different audio track? Not only does that make the audience rethink what we’ve already seen, but it points out just how important sound is to the film experience, something I’m sure many casual moviegoers don’t give a second thought.

The trouble is, for all its great ideas, I feel like the movie could have been executed better. It got the atmosphere right, but I felt throughout the whole thing as if something was missing. And, truth be told, at the very end of the film I was so stunned that it was over, I had to rewind it to make sure I hadn’t missed something important. That’s the one thing that rubs me the wrong way about Berberian Sound Studio; nothing really happens in it. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, it may even be a little boring. Immediately after the film I felt disappointed that it hadn’t done a better job. It wasn’t until days afterwards that it started to gel in my head. So, I think it’s a better movie in theory than in practice. Still, I would love to watch it a second time, knowing what I know now, and seeing if it makes a difference. Definitely worthwhile, but slightly disappointing. I just wanted it to be a little bit better.


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