Berberian Sound Studio (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Artificial Eye) Running Time: 92 minutes approx
In the mid 1970’s a timid sound engineer, Gilderoy (Toby Jones), is recruited to the rundown Berberian Sound Studios work on the audio track of an Italian giallo film entitled The Equestrian Vortex. Expecting a film about horses, Gilderoy is shocked to find it is a horror film containing strong sexual violence and demonic overtones. Constantly bullied by the brusque producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) and the smooth but lascivious director Santini (Antonio Mancino) Gilderoy begins to lose his grip on reality within the confines of this unpleasant work environment.
British-Greek director Peter Strickland is clearly a cinephile who makes films for fellow cinephiles. This is the main thing one takes away from watching his second feature Berberian Sound Studio – a film that is to be appreciated and not enjoyed in the traditional sense. It is a loving and meticulously crafted homage to the giallo genre – the movement of Italian films which blended horror, mystery, surrealism and eroticism, spearheaded by the likes of Dario Argento – that very cleverly morphs into an unsettling surreal horror film itself. And for a film based on the power of sound it is one of the more visually striking works released this year, creating a sensation as though the viewer is actually being taken into a sonic space if such a thing is possible.
Strickland, the man who created a stir with his 2009 debut, the bucolic, Hungarian language revenge tale Katalin Varga, takes us behind the scenes of film post production but subverts this familiar concept by not showing a single second of the grotesque action from The Equestrian Vortex, (aside from the impeccably replicated opening title sequence – see clip at the end of this review). By leaving it up to the acting and the sound production, the viewer is therefore left to their own imagination as to decide what a woman being tortured by a witch or having a red hot poker inserted in her is like, while the only visual interpretation we get are vegetables being torn to pieces!
If this sounds positively hideous, it is supposed to be and Gilderoy agrees with you, but he is soon told that his is not to reason why. Being a typically repressed Englishman who misses him mother and small rural home, it is not long before he mentally crumbles under the strain of being belittled by Santini and Francesco or having to fight for reimbursement for his flight costs by sullen receptionist Elena (Tonia Sotiropoulou). The only person he seems to strike a rapport with is voice actress Silvia (Fatma Mohamed) who is equally uncomfortable with the film’s content and indeed with the treatment of her employers. Unlike Gilderoy however, Silvia plans on fighting back.
It is at this point where Strickland seems to lose the plot, just as Gilderoy does and is likely to lose many viewers along with it. While it may seem oblique, the depiction of Gilderoy’s breakdown is again very clever but perhaps too clever for its own good, even it does fit in nicely with the tone of the film. This isn’t much of a spoiler but the end result sees a previously ignorant Gilderoy now fluent in Italian and more on board with Francesco’s ideas and objectives. If this is the same reality we had spent the previous hour watching, that is. I did say it would become surreal – sadly it means that we limp rather confusedly to the finish line rather than a full on sprint into something quite shocking and conclusive. When one considers the potential of the central premise this final act is a little unsatisfying it has to be said.
As I said earlier, this is a film for film fans and Strickland’s dedication to recreating the bygone methods of creating good old fashioned analogue sound effects is a nice tribute to this pre-digital age practice. Not content with just showing vegetables and the like being sliced, diced and god knows what ever else in the pursuit of that perfect stabbing sound, we are treated to some unique vocal performances employed for those unearthly sounds of demonically possessed people or animals, with some uncomfortable but oddly compelling shots taken deep within the mouth of the voice actor. It is fascinating to watch these people contort themselves as if genuinely possessed in order to bring out that subhuman groan from within, and should engender a greater appreciation for their dedication to their craft.
The soundtrack, provided by British electronic act Broadcast, is as much a star as the superb human cast – headed by a wonderfully understated Toby Jones – employed to maximum effect in creating the eerie and supernatural atmosphere prevalent throughout the film. Be it the cacophony of simplistic distorted electronic whines, the blood curdling screams or the deafening silence, the unnerving soundtrack remains a potent fixture in the mind of the viewer long after the credits have rolled. The wonderful syncopation of this moody dissonance with images ranging from the mundane to shots of the technology of the day in all their anachronistic glory is a treat for both eyes and ears.
Recently well rewarded at the 2012 Film 4 Frightfest (Best Director, Best Actor – Toby Jones, Best Achievement in Production, Best Technical Achievement), Berberian Sound Studio is an ambitious and inventive film that is made with palpable love and affection for the halcyon days of a beloved genre of filmmaking. However this is a niche title that will appeal largely to fans of the giallo genre and to fans of challenging arthouse cinema. Gauche final act aside, this is as chilling and nightmarish a horror film as you are likely to see all year.
2.0 Stereo LPCM
5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
Audio Commentary with Director Peter Strickland
Interview with Director Peter Strickland
The Making of Berberian Sound Studio
Production Design Gallery
Extended Box Hill Commentary
Berberian Sound Studio Short
Rating – *** ½
Man In Black
Opening credits of The Equestrian Vortex