Don’t be surprised if it takes more than one viewing to fully comprehend director Peter Strickland’s atmospheric but confounding Berberian Sound Studio, a film that starts out as one thing but ends up as quite another. But it just can’t quite stick the landing on a mind fudging served up in doses as lush as the audiology on display – at least, not upon initial viewing. More on that at the end. Also, unless one is quite familiar with the intricacies of Italian giallo cinema of the 1970s (admittedly, me: not so much) some in-jokes and references are going to go missing to the viewer as well. Despite some stellar sound work and subsequent immersion in the sound production techniques of the era, complete with all the analog goodies such as reel-to-reel tapes and foley art, the film starts to unravel as much as the protagonist’s psyche in the third act. If you end up with one or even a few “WTF?” moments, rest assured, you aren’t alone.
The setting is very much period, as the mononymous and mousy British sound engineer, Gilderoy (Toby Jones), is recruited by a sleazy Italian studio to come work on the 1976 post production of The Equestrian Vortex, a prime example of the giallo cinema that centers on the gory persecution and destruction of a coven of witches. As he is surrounded by a bitchy secretary, a prick of a head sound engineer, Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), disgruntled voice actresses and a douchebag snake oil salesman of a director, Santini (Antonio Mancino), the poor nebbish begins to long for home of Dorkin, to which he’s only connected by notes from his mum. It’s really only when he’s engaged in his work with the tapes and the foley art when he is able to feel at ease. And his only friend turns out to be a spider.
The film doesn’t immediately present as a mind trip, rather, it’s very much a fish out of water affair as Gilderoy finds himself caught up in the frequent squabbles between cast and crew, as well as the recurring headache of trying to hash out reimbursement of a plane ticket for which he’s out of pocket. He gets the runaround from Francesco, the secretary and Accounting on a few occasions and never is his status as a pushover more on display. Nevertheless, Gilderoy’s talents as an engineer are apparent, even as his unfamiliarity and uncomfortableness with with the level of debauchery and gore in Equestrian Vortex grows. The film is the backdrop for – and the embodiment of – his growing madness. Strickland’s most deft decision, though, is to never show a frame of what it is that’s pushing Gilderoy over the edge. Instead, he constructs a sonic image of the gore in the movie with his soundtrack and excellent sound mixing, both on the film within the film and thus Berberian itself. Performances all around are solid, especially Jones, who conveys well the discomfiture and gradual deterioration of Gilderoy.
Strickland is working a (very) high-concept thriller here that will probably be appreciated more in retrospect and upon further viewings. But upon initial viewing, it’s not always clear what he’s attempting here. When it finally is, there are just some derailings when reality and insanity start to get too buddy buddy. It quite easily can lose you in transitions from the real to the imagined, from Gilderoy’s home to the studio and back. Then there are specific instances like the seeming resolution to the reimbursement issue. Is it a simple mix up or was Gilderoy ever really there at all? Does he speak Italian or no? Is there some sort of hard reset on the pic or something? It’s all trippy. Trippy can be good, but unclear trippy usually isn’t.
Finally, I had to watch Berberian from halfway through to the end again. When I did, and paid better attention, I gained a much better appreciation for what Strickland pulled off. Very imaginative and well executed, especially with how he plays with sound, both in reality and in insanity. There were a couple of instances I had to make sure my speakers were still working. Berberian Sound Studio is not a film for the lazy nor the inattentive. It takes work, but it is worth it in the end though.
First viewing: Rating:
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
Second viewing: Rating:
Out of a Possible 5 Stars