Director: Peter Strickland
Screenplay: Peter Strickland
Starring: Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Susanna Cappellaro
Producers: Mary Burke, Keith Griffiths
Running Time: 92 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Strangely, even though I’m not sure I ever watched the trailer for Berberian Sound Studio or read a description of its plot, I found myself massively excited about watching this ever since I heard it announced about a year ago. I think it was just the way it was described as a stylish homage to Italian giallo, a genre I’m really getting into these days which often suffers from dated production techniques and lazy writing. With a talented young director and modern know-how in its favour, this modern re-working sounded like my sort of thing. Plus the early buzz was very positive and Toby Jones is generally worth watching.
What is especially impressive then is that the film not only exceeded my expectations, but turned out to be more than just a flashy rip-off of Italian thrillers from the 60’s and 70’s.
Berberian Sound Studio opens in 1976 with Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a British sound engineer, arriving in Italy to work on “The Equestrian Vortex”, the latest ultra-violent horror movie from the maestro Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino). The director is rarely on set though, with Gilderoy largely working with Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), the film’s producer. Although he and the rest of the crew seem full of admiration for Gilderoy and his unmistakable talents, relationships begin to fray and the Brit struggles to stay sane as the horrors on screen get too much for him and the cultural differences and insensitive behaviour of Santini turns Gilderoy’s time in Italy into a living nightmare. Wrapped up in his work at all times, the line between fiction and reality begin to blur for him and the film grows more surreal as it moves towards its twisted climax.
As much as Berberian Sound Studio pays homage to Italian genre cinema and its vivid style, the film is more of a love letter to sound design, especially the surreal and timeless work of the foley artist. Much of the film is made up of watching (and hearing of course) the sound effects being produced for “The Equestrian Vortex” without ever seeing any of the film-within-a-film itself (other than its animated title sequence). These sequences are incredibly effective, remaining simultaneously disturbing and darkly humorous as we are only given a brief description of what is happening on screen (via the voice of the unseen projectionist) before watching Gilderoy and the foley artists Massimo and Massimo (played by avant-garde artists/musicians Jozef Cseres and Pal Toth) bring the descriptions to life using various vegetables, fruit and household implements. Director Peter Strickland makes it clear in the various interviews and commentaries that he doesn’t class Berberian Sound Studio as a horror film, but these sequences, as well as the nightmarish directions the film moves into, make for a rather terrifying experience despite the complete lack of on-screen violence or gore.
I can see Strickland’s point though. This is more than a straight forward genre-piece full of scares. There isn’t much to the plot – although the style makes reference to classic giallo, there isn’t the usual unnecessarily complex (and occasionally incoherent) storyline which so many of those share. Instead Berberian Sound Studio works as a dark, cyclical fever-dream which looks at the issues of being a ‘fish-out-of-water’ as well as looking at the powerful nature of filmmaking and sound design in particular. It might be seen by some to be a mere exercise in style and mood, more of an experiment than a film itself, but I felt there were enough levels you could delve into to keep it from becoming vapid or tedious. I found the whole experience utterly bewitching anyway, so even if it was created without much thought to substance or plot I still very much enjoyed soaking it in.
From a technical standpoint the film is magnificent. The sound design is stunning, which is vital of course. With a half-hearted soundtrack the film would have failed miserably and it’s no surprise that Strickland seemed to have been heavily involved in the process, an element which many directors leave to the post-production house. The cinematography, provided by Nicholas D. Knowland (who shot Institute Benjamenta for the Brothers Quay), is also stunning, retaining the striking look of the best of Argento and Bava, while developing a seductive yet grim look of its own.
I can see some not buying into the bewildering, looping structure of Berberian Sound Studio, especially its Lynchian finale and heavy investment in mood over narrative, but for me this was exactly what I wanted, and so much more. It’s probably the best British film I’ve seen for a number of years and you can expect to see it in the top tier of my review of 2012 soon.
Berberian Sound Studio is out now on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Artificial Eye. I watched the Blu-Ray version and the picture and sound quality were exemplary, perfectly showcasing the stunning cinematography and obviously pivotal sound design.
The discs are loaded with extras too. You get a half-hour interview with director Peter Strickland which is poorly shot but very interesting, displaying his passion and dedication for the project as well as the various influences which inspired the film. Added to this is a 45 minute ‘making of’ which again is a bit thrown together, with interviews with cast and crew members suddenly changing to raw B-Roll footage, then eventually becoming a mixture of the two. It is still a fascinating watch though, other than a bit of crossover between the director’s interview. Also repeating a bit of this content is a director’s commentary. This is great though, as Strickland goes into great detail about the construction of each scene.
And the list goes on… There are a number of deleted scenes and a production design gallery which also have commentaries by Strickland. The full version of the Box Hill Documentary which features in the film is included too, as is Strickland’s original short which inspired the film. This is only 1 minute long and is purely a sight gag of watching two foley artists at work, but it works well enough I guess – it’s just incredibly slight, especially after watching the feature.