Sunday, 2 June 2013

Review #620: 'Berberian Sound Studio' (2012)

With his second feature, after 2006's Katalin Varga, British director Peter Strickland claimed that he wanted to strip back cinema and make everything that is usually unseen on film, such as the mechanics of cinema itself, visible. So, with Berberian Sound Studio, a film that seems to have unjustly flown under the radar, Strickland has made a horror film with no horror. Like classics The Conversation (1974) and Blow Out (1981), the study of sound opens a gateway into it's protagonist's increasingly unstable mind. But there is no murder or mystery to be solved, just a gentle Brit abroad in a lonely, dark editing suite in Italy in the 1970's.

Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is a master of sound editing, or so Santini (Antonio Mancino), the director of a new Italian giallo film, says. Santini has brought him in to dub and add the sound effects for his new masterpiece, The Equestrian Vortex, and Gilderoy reluctantly agrees, even though some of the staff are less than welcoming, and his mild-mannered sensibilities oppose the blood, guts and sex of the film he's helping to create. He struggles to get his plane ticket refunded, and Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), the apparent second-in-command, becomes increasingly hostile to Gilderoy and the various 'scream queens'. Nevertheless, Gilderoy carries on, but finds his world becoming more disjointed and his sanity questionable.

As well as a homage to giallos, which are perhaps more popular now than they have ever been with some highly polished home media releases, Berberian Sound Studio is a homage to cinema itself. It's a minor celebration of the mechanics of cinema that are largely ignored by the audience, but can be the element that makes a film what it is. Here, we see melons being hacked with a cleaver, various fruits and vegetables stabbed, beaten and tossed away. We aren't seeing any violence, but we may as well be watching a skull being bludgeoned, or a woman having her guts spilled onto the floor. We are indeed watching the film that Santini is making, but in its most primal stage. When the camera pans over the discarded basket of fruit remains, it's like looking at a corpse.

Anybody who enjoys the work of Argento or those countless giallos with outlandishly long titles and gorgeous Italian women, will be in their element here. This is far from being a giallo, but the film is peppered with homages to the genre, with glimpses of wire being wrapped around a closed fist and tightened, a stranger who is never seen wearing black gloves, and an appearance from Suzy Kendall, star of genre classics The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Torso (1973). We also glimpse the soundsheets, which offer ridiculous descriptions involving witches and murders that are as hilarious as they are spot-on. There isn't a murder to speak of, but there doesn't need to be.

The film plays with you in every way it can think of, be it sudden bursts of high-pitched screams followed by the flashing red light stating 'Silenzio', or an elongated scene where you feel like nothing is happening, but actually a lot is happening. It's at it's best when it's subtle, mirrored by Toby Jones' wonderfully understated performance. Which makes it disappointing that, come the climax, the film goes all out David Lynch-weird, dubbing Gilderoy into Italian as he watches himself on screen, edited into one of his own countryside documentaries. It's a flashy moment that almost becomes avant garde, threatening the calm, creeping mystery that came before. Still, this doesn't stop Berberian Sound Studio from being one of the finest films of 2012.

Directed by: Peter Strickland
Starring: Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Tonia Sotiropoulou
Country: UK

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Berberian Sound Studio (2012) on IMDb

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